Tag Archives: Force Planning

Stealing a Long March

Falling Out

Force development is much like agriculture. Seeds appear trifling things; but such small objects can engulf entire fields or grow to incredible height. Investing early in incubator programs can lead to huge changes in the future. When observed from a position of strength, the small changes garnered by others seem superficial rather than tectonic. The American defense establishment is missing those tectonic changes as China’s military begins the process of stealing a march in force development.

Whatever you do, don’t think “crash.”

China is pursuing a broad portfolio of revolutionizing technologies. We have discussed in detail the potential opportunities for drone warfare on this blog and elsewhere.  However, those working to reap such opportunities are not here in the U.S. where ideas are shared freely, but in the People’s Republic of China.  Scientists in China have developed a system by which, with thought alone, an operator can control an aerial drone.  Rudimentary technology at best, it is nonetheless a leap we have yet to take.  Even at the beginning stages, it shows smoother control with a mental operator rather than a manual one. Although the US does seem dedicated to drone saturation, we have not moved past our initial uses and operation of them. Drones still require legions of remote operators rather than partial automation and direct connections with the men in the field. While we have yet to integrate our many exciting advances in automation and bionics, the PRC has grabbed a great leap forward and changed the very way they interact with drones.

China is also marching past us in more mundane military technologies.  We have discussed the practicality and pragmatism of the Houbei versus our misbegotten LCS.  Far from the risky investment in an in-shore knife-fighter some desired, LCS was held back as a conventional, do-everything (aka: nothing) combatant without the relative advantage in speed, strength, or resilience to give it any sort of field advantage.  We essentially attempted to build a Ford RS300, but halfway through decided to finish it as an Isuzu Elf.  Meanwhile, with the PLAN following a disciplined strategy for blue-water modernization, a stream of solidly-constructed and capable warships are pouring into the Pacific, making the failures of our current investment ever more evident. Our attempts at modernization in the air are just as white-washed; worse than the do-everything design of LCS, the new Joint Strike Fighter attempts to stuff the needs of every branch into one frame that doesn’t quite make anyone happy. Even basic capabilities, like anti-ship missiles, lag embarrassingly behind. While the U.S. still uses a sub-sonic cold-war relic, the PRC rolls out DF-21Ds. Where technology does branch out, it seems unnecessary, like the laser-guided Griffen Missile system on PCs that already have far-more capable Mod 2 25mm cannons.  China’s more reasonable and planned forays into future technology have made our past-ideas decorated with sweet rims look ridiculous.

We are also shrinking from the one area in which we could claim total dominance: space.  Although our nation is now in the mini-euphoria from Curiosity’s landing on Mars, most have forgotten that this is an achievement of a program started 8 years ago.  Our current manned space program is dead.  NASA shifted the lion’s share of investment to “earth sciences,” a realm already well-manned by all the scientists ON earth.  China not only retains a manned space program, but advertises a plan for both the Moon and Mars.  Even if such a schedule is a dream, at least they still have one.  While this is not directly a military issue, it is a strong force multiplier.  Space is the ultimate high ground.  To lose dominance there undermines a vast number of U.S. capabilities.

Has never attended mandatory “Improving Financial Management” training

Our mighty oak is rotting from within. Money is pouring into failed projects.  Our Sailors are over-stretched and time is cut for the training/education necessary to add critical value to those personnel.  Our priorities are skewed, millions of man-hours are lost to politically correct schools and rubbish ship-wide life-choices training.  Meanwhile, the PLAN marches forward, steadily planting the seeds necessary to grow a modern blue-water navy supported by a far greater industrial base than anything the U.S. can muster.  They are slowly reaching into the commons, as the face put forward by the U.S. becomes harder and harder to maintain.  If we don’t get back into step soon, we may need that long-view of history to see just how far ahead of us the Chinese march has advanced.

Catching Up

The effort necessary to regain our momentum would be disruptive, but not impossible. First, stubborn pride and sunk costs are no way to direct procurement. LCS must be cancelled. In its place, begin a vetting process for contracting a pre-existant hull to be built in the US, backed up by a low-mix of new coastal patrol crafts and the new MK VI’s.  This would provide the desired coverage using fast, proven, and cheaper vessels that would save us billions in these tight times.

Where the LCS has many fine replacements, the JSF has crowded out the development of real alternatives. The diplomatic/trade capital invested also makes it an impossible program to cancel without painful follow-on consequences. However, the billions saved from LCS could fund a quicker turnover to automated and integrated ComBot technology, creating an “AEGIS in the sky” of super-fast autonomous aircraft and ComBots on the ground integrated with our fighting men and women. It’s a future closer than you may think. These new automated systems could lead to new systems to take on LCS’s failed missions, such as brown-water ASW and mine-sweeping.

With the US’s new technologies, we rely heavily on space. It is a commons commanding the ultimate high ground from which we guide our weapons, communications, and our intelligence infrastructure. Less concrete, but existentially more important, we must continue our investment in the development and exploration of space. The United States, at its very essence, doesn’t represent a set of borders, we survive as an idea. Being a nation undefined by a border, we must constantly strive beyond them. When the US landed on the Moon, we didn’t represent just ourselves, but all humanity. Such is a cause and driving force behind our constant success… a dream. To abandon that dream, even worse to cede it to the likes of the PRC, would be tantamount to ideological suicide. We must re-invest in our manned space program. This is not in defense of our physical commons, but in the commons of ideas, something to believe in. Much like the JSF and LCS programs, we don’t believe anymore. We’re going through the motions. We need to regroup and find a real direction towards the future, because the PRC marching past us.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Securing the Swarm: New Dogs, Old Tricks

As the tide of automated warfare rises, optimists are already attempting to ride the wave.  I do so in Proceedings, suggesting possible paths of development for autonomous platforms, and at the Disruptive Thinkers blog Ben Kohlman and I imagine future scenarios in which automated platforms might be used. Admittedly, we often ignore the many ways our concepts can wipe out: particularly signals hijacking and spoofing of navigational systems. As illustrated by eavesdropping on Predator communications and the recent forced crash of a drone in Texas, determined enemies can steal information or cause mayhem if they break the code on combat robot (ComBot) operations. Ideas for securing these advanced automated armadas can be found in some of the oldest methods in the book.

Paleo-Wireless: Communicating in the Swarm
In 2002, LtGen Paul Van Riper became famous for sinking the American fleet in a day during the Millennium Challenge exercise; he did so by veiling his intentions in a variety of wireless communications. We assume wireless to mean the transfer of data through the air via radio signals, but lights, hand signals, motorcycle couriers, and the like are all equally wireless.  These paleo-wireless technologies are just what ComBots need for signal security.

ComBot vulnerabilities to wireless hacks are of particular concern for planners. Data connections to operators or potential connections between ComBots serve as a way for enemies to detect, destroy, or even hijack our assets.  While autonomy is the first step in solving the vulnerability of operator connections, ComBots in the future will work as communicating teams. Fewer opportunities will be provided for subversion by cutting the long link back to the operator  while maintaining the versatility of a small internally-communicating team. However, data communication between ComBots would still be vulnerable. Therefore, ComBots must learn from LtGen Van Riper and move to the wireless communications of the past. Just as ships at sea communicate by flags and lights when running silent or soldiers might whisper or motion to one another before breaching a doorway, ComBots can communicate via light, movement, or sound.

Unlike a tired Junior Officer of the Deck with a NATO code-book propped open, computers can almost instantly process simple data. If given the capability, a series of blinking lights, sounds, or even informative light data-transmissions  could allow ComBots of the future to coordinate their actions in the battlefield without significantly revealing their position. ComBots would be able to detect and recognize the originator of signals, duly ignoring signals not coming from the ComBot group. With the speed and variation of their communications, compressed as allowed by their processing power, ComBots can move through the streets and skies with little more disruption than a cricket, lightening bug, or light breeze. High- and low-pitch sounds and infrared light would allow for communications undetectable to the average soldier.

LtGen Van Riper melded a deadly combo of new weaponry with old communications to build a force capable of, with the greatest surprise, wiping out a force armed with the greatest technology in every category. Utility, not technology, is what gives us the edge in the battlefield. Sometimes it is a combination of the old and new that allows for the potency. Perhaps, one day, ComBots will be set loose into the battlefield where they will operate more as a pack driven by sight and sound than a military formation managed over a data link.

GPS: How About a Map?

The Texas incident has broken open the doors on a previously low-key vulnerability for ComBot systems, navigation. While speculation is rife as to how the CIA lost a drone in Iran, it is quite clear that the researchers in Texas were able to spoof a ComBot into destroying itself. Spoofing of externally-based navigational systems is a potential way to turn aerial ComBots in particular into weapons against us.  It is often forgotten that systems that are “autonomous” still rely on outside guidance references that can be manipulated. While civilian GPS is less secure than military-grade GPS, the potential for GPS spoofing to lay-low a combat force is a chilling one. However, the solution can be found by augmenting legacy techniques with modern processing.

Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM) and Digital Scene Mapping Correlation (DSMAC) are non-GPS methods of navigation that specifically use internal recognition of local terrain and urban landmarks to maneuver Tomahawk missiles. This is another way of, “looking around and reading a map.” Processing power advances since the system was first introduced during the Cold War mean greater amounts of recognition data can be processed in shorter amounts of time by smaller platforms. ComBots deployed to specific areas can upload local data to allow localization based on terrain from high altitude or Google-maps-style scene matching from rooftops or even street-by-street. With adaptive software, ComBots could even “guess” their location if the battlefield changes due to combat destruction, noting changes in their environment as damage is done.  While GPS can be spoofed, unless the enemy has been watching too much Blazing Saddles, DSMAC and TERCOM will be nigh impregnable navigational systems.

This defense for ComBot operations can also act as a navigational redoubt for a fighting force. The downing of GPS satellites or the spoofing of signals effects everyone using electronic navigation systems. Aerial ComBots outfitted with TERCOM and DSMAC could act as a secondary GPS system in an area with a GPS outage. If signals are jammed or satellites taken out, warfighters or other navigationally lesser-developed ComBots could triangulate their positions based on the system of ComBots with locations determined by TERCOM and DSMAC. By adding these recognition systems to autonomous drones, commanders will defend ComBots from hijackers and combatants from the choking fog of war.

Riding the Wave

The key to the safe and effective use of ComBots is to avoid the extremes of optimists and luddites. Optimists will look far into the realm of capability before necessarily researching vulnerabilities, abandoning the old for every shiny new development. Luddites will make certification and security processes long and complicated, cowering from the strange light new technology brings; ComBots would run on Windows 95 and take 30 minutes to log on to themselves. It is best to advance fearlessly, but take our hard-learned lessons with us. Non-digital communications, aka speech and signals, and localized navigational systems, aka carrying maps, offer ComBot developers a shield against interlocutors.  Our new dogs will be best defended by some of the oldest tricks.

This article appeared in its original form at Small Wars Journal.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

The Counter-Piracy Failure: Andromeda Strain

We Won but We Failed: What We Should Learn

Quicker to learn?

In Andromeda Strain, the scientists of the Wildfire Team struggled against their pathogen foe, (spoiler alert) only to have their problems solved by circumstance and environment. An entire plot was written about a crisis team that, in the end, accomplished nothing. East African piracy, while by no means eradicated, looks perhaps to have peaked, and public interest waning possibly even faster. Sure, the Maersk Texas was attacked in May, but this single blip on the radar is a paltry show compared to the still-notable number of small-boat attacks off the coast of India, yacht abductions, and beach resort kidnappings.

Unfortunately, after almost a decade of engagement, the West’s maritime Wildfire team has had almost no hand in the changes on the high seas. A series of military incursions by neighbors, newfound vigor in the AU mission, and rise of PMC’s at sea have changed the state of play and cut the mission short, leaving a real possibility for naval leadership to miss the lessons learned from their recent miscalculations.

As the counter-piracy mission is fresh in our minds and before the threat fades into the jaws of vengeful regional militaries, we should use the opportunity to recognize and assess our failures as a force in countering piracy on the high seas.

The West Reacts to the Pathogen

In scope, the naval response to the threat of piracy appeared robust. Dozens of warships plied the waters in search of high-seas bandits. Area patrols ran alongside convoy escorts. Several multi-national coalitions (NATO, U.S.-led Combined Military Forces, the EU) ran operations concurrently with the independent efforts of ten or more countries at any one time. The Indian navy recently captured a stunning 61 pirates after a pitched gun battle. Over 20 nations now meet for the annual Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) conference to build a united front against piracy. Maritime Patrol Aircraft and UAVs from multiple nations surveil the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), pirate anchorages, and the open ocean. There was a reasonable expectation that such a massive military drag net might stymie piracy. However, the result was a better skilled and better organized pirate. As Napoleon said, “You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.”

Piracy’s Adaptation and Resistance

Until military action ashore cut short the party, coastal raids with small skiffs developed into multi-million dollar kidnapping operations with captured tankers converted to motherships. Pirates used UHF communications, skilled hostage negotiators, and money changers in Dubai. Merchants deactivated their automatic identification system (AIS), a system used for vessel safety during the height of piracy around the Straits of Malacca, as pirates at large used it as a homing beacon. Pirates adapted to the law-enforcement rules of engagement used by the respective patrolling navies, hiding or disposing of all pirate paraphernalia and making it next-to-impossible for maritime enforcers to get the convictions occasionally sought. Many pirates moved to new areas altogether, shifting operations away from patrols and avoiding the range of immediate military responses.

The focus of piracy shifted from capturing cargo to capturing people. Kidnapping was the name of the game. Due to an inability to enforce arrangements, some companies paid full ransom for captured employees and only received a fraction of their personnel in return. EUNAVFOR even reported more brazen tactics of avoiding capture, namely the threatened and actual torture of hostages.

This adaptation, combined with the lack of political stability, created threats beyond endangering global commerce. With Al-Qaeda operating in Somalia next to Al-Shabab, endless opportunities presented themselves for terrorist networks to simply generate profits through partnership or create havoc with vessels purchased from pirates. Rather than siphon off fuel for profits, the pirates could sell a vessel wholesale to terrorists who could use the vessel as a massive explosive in a civilian port, blockage in the mouth of a harbor, or a suicide battering ram against an unsuspecting warship. Capture-and-switch tactics with maritime commercial vehicles had precedent; the 1998 hijacking of the Petro Ranger being a case in point. It only takes a savvy pirate with the right connections to profit from the sale of hijacked tankers for acts of terrorism. Piracy is a crime of opportunity, and human beings are always good at finding new ones.

Breaking the Sea-Shore Learning Cycle

The key to breaking the adaptation puzzle is to boost the intensity of the counter-piracy dosage. One can have the best weapons in the world, but it won’t matter unless the operational concept is correct. The U.S. was weak on piracy, an inch-deep mile-wide river. Pirates waded easily across to tell their compatriots what they’d seen, creating a deadly sea-to-shore innovation cycle that improved pirate learning. This must be solved through more vigorous piracy prosecution, more aggressive rules of engagement (ROE)/posture, and a shore kinetic solution.

Instead, the U.S. released many captured pirates back into Somalia, only prosecuting those that attacked the rare U.S. flagged vessel. The idea behind this policy is that piracy is a crime, not a national security issue. If the vessel’s flag would not prosecute, there could be no trial or detention. Piracy is however very much a national security issue – not only does it drive up the cost of shipping and goods, but pulls mission-ready forces from other duties to keep the costs from rising higher. Sailors deployed to counter-piracy missions can attest to lengthy force protection details off the coast during RHIB transfers of detainees to shore. These temporary detentions were a waste of time and money, punishing piracy with nothing more than a few days in the ship’s center-line passageway with three squares meals and regular washes. The idea that pirates “learned” something from their capture was correct. The lesson was that they likely would survive encounters with U.S. warships and be returned to their anchorages. At the very least, more suspected vessels should have been diverted and escorted to ports where their hulls, cargo, and crew could be inspected and held if necessary. U.S. tactics involving capture had little meaning without a resolution other than emancipation. At worst, such impotent gestures actively undermined the authority of the U.S. presence.

Actions Louder than Words

These operations would have been aided by more lenient ROE and a higher level of aggressiveness in the U.S. posture toward piracy. This is a complicated subject as the rules were designed to maximize legitimacy and minimize controversy and liability. It is frustrating to read message traffic insisting on defining pirates clearly caught in the act as “suspected.” Pirates, when positively identified, are hailed and warned, but rarely destroyed. A comical irony is that an escort for a pirated vessel provides, if anything, little more than military protection for the pirates on the vessel.

Better ROE would be more aggressive, allowing the engagement and destruction of vessels with known associations to piracy. Once the chance to surrender is given, threats must be made good. To counter the use of human shields, a counter-offer must be made to pirates. The normal method, as I witnessed it, is that U.S. warships hail pirate vessels, occasionally fire warning shots, then are deterred by the presence of human shields or pirate threats to kill their hostages.

Ending Incentivization

Just as the U.S. has a standing policy not to negotiate with terrorists, the same should be clearly applied to pirates: remove the incentive to use hostages. Piracy is not about ideologies, but competing costs and benefits. The U.S. concept of operations places far too much stake on the presence of hostages, further imperiling mariners by encouraging their capture. Military policy should make hostage-taking and the use of human shields a non-factor. If uncooperative, all pirate vessels should be engaged with disabling or destructive fire. Rather than reducing the equation to capture or an escape with hostages, warships should amend the options: capture or death. If hostages are used as shields or threatened with death, the pirates should understand that they only further endanger their own lives by risking lethal retaliation. If hostages are killed by pirates, the responsibility lies with the pirates, not with the military endeavoring to save them. This is an unpleasant idea, but kinetic operations of this kind can rarely be conducted without at least a trace of regrettable collateral damage. Military planners should recognize this unfortunate inevitability and pursue the larger goal of protecting future mariners and an entire region’s stability.

Not Just the Sea

One development that did prove effective was stationing warships at pirate anchorages. This led to a better picture of piracy operations, their frequency, and capabilities. However, partially due to the presence of hostages, the infrastructure remained largely undisturbed. From only a few miles off the coast, a swath of defenseless pirate infrastructure was often in view of my own vessel. I remember SUVs brazenly shadowing us along the shore as we maneuvered close to the land. Small vessels were clearly visible transiting to and from shore with supplies for anchored pirated vessels. Pirate skiffs were propped up in clusters above the tide near supply shacks and rows of vehicles. Pirates came to rely on these facilities to coordinate their operations at sea while simultaneously maintaining a large stable of captured vessels and hostages. With rare exception, these shores were left alone, covered in equipment ripe for destruction. Again, military leaders were naturally worried about hostage collateral damage. Yet naval gunfire can be used to great effect against safe targets at pirate anchorages. UHF towers, clusters of empty vehicles, supply vessels, unattended skiffs, and the assorted support facilities onshore are all easy targets for naval gunfire. This is not only less expensive than leaving the pirates alone, launching 1.5 million dollar Tomahawks, or drone strikes, but terrifying for pirates realizing they could be bombarded at any moment with a ship offshore. This scorched-earth policy for pirate shore facilities should be common practice.

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger (and smaller) Boat

America’s military counter-piracy medication comes in the form of ships-of-the-line, namely DDGs and a few FFGs. While versatile craft, these are inherently conventional, centralized combatants designed for confrontations with modern navies. They are expensive, complicated blue-water craft weighed down with anti-submarine, anti-surface, and anti-air capabilities unsuited for the task of counter-piracy. VLS, AEGIS, torpedoes, Harpoon, towed arrays, sonobuoys, etc. have little to no use here. These platforms have a limited aviation capability and little room for detainees caught while on patrol. There are even FFGs deployed to Somalia without helicopters, making them next to useless when it comes to responding to calls for help outside of 20nm. Additionally, unlike the conventional warfare areas, there is no formal training regimen for these ships that deals with piracy specifically, their assigned mission.

Amphibious platforms, on the other hand, have the supplies and space to contain detainees for long periods without impacting crew effectiveness. Amphibious platforms also bring vital improved air assets/compatible flexibility not sufficiently present in CRUDES. The USS Oak Hill’s certification to carry riverine boats last summer demonstrates amphibious ships’ versatility with the ability to deploy patrol boats in concert with multiple air assets. Rather than a single ship and helicopter covering hundreds of miles of coastline, a whole swarm of air and sea assets, bolstered by a large detainee space and afloat support facility, become available in a single platform. These kinds of coastal patrol operations were executed to great effect during Vietnam using Landing Ship Tank (LST) vessels as bases to deploy Patrol Boats-Riverine (PBRs) and helicopters. A similar concept would be a far more effective counter-piracy force structure off Somalia.

Andromeda Strain: Not Walking Away Empty Handed

As regional entities take turns carving out pieces of the vacuum in which pirates operated, we will naturally let out a sigh of relief and enjoy a chance to walk away from the piracy issue. We must not, however, allow our efforts to be for naught; we must at a minimum take with us the important lessons from our failed efforts. Piracy is a crime of opportunity. It can only be deterred by changing the cost-benefit analysis and removing the chances to commit the crime. The United States’ incomplete capture strategy, backed up by weak actions/ROE, only taught pirates that, with a little innovation, the usual result of a run in with an American vessel was a free ride home.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

An Influence Squadron in the Making?

Commander Henry Hendrix’s Proceedings article “Buy Fords, Not Ferraris” has entered the canon of innovative naval concepts and has received extensive attention at Information Dissemination and elsewhere. One idea from his article: influence squadrons, or a group of ships centered around an amphibious flagship and emphasizing smaller, networked platforms to conduct presence operations, theater security cooperation, and irregular warfare.

Over at ID, Commander Chris Rawley just wrote about testing distributed maritime operations using UAVs which will become unemployed as operations in Afghanistan wind down. Though he focuses on the aviation side of the house, he does mention surface vessels:

Some of the goals of these [distributed operations] battle exercises would be to…


  • Develop ways to employ smaller ships as forward arming, refueling, and communications relays for these aircraft.
  • Employ the above concepts with various deployed nodes of special operations forces, Marine, and NECC elements, in an effort to understand the capabilities and limitations each of these units brings to the distributed littoral fight.

Undersecretary Bob Work spoke at a CATO Institute event yesterday (h/t CDR Salamander) regarding the future of the Navy’s surface fleet. While LCS dominated the discourse as usual, I found two of his slides very interesting and no one seems to be talking about them:




















To me, this looks like an “influence squadron” in the making. Take an LPD-17, a Burke-class DDG, two LCSs, and embark 4 Mk VI PBs in the well deck, combined with manned and unmanned aircraft from all ships and you’ll get a credible influence squadron. I could see a group of such ships and aircraft operating in the waters near Indonesia, other Pacific Islands, or the Straits of Malacca. This would be ideal for presence operations, HA/DR, capacity building for low-capability partners, theater security cooperation or – with the support of additional combatants – enforcing a blockade.  And to CDR Rawley’s point, can these vessels support a small UAV? Now seems the time to put such a group together and see what it can do – and it seems like the Navy’s senior leaders are thinking the same.

I had never heard of the Mark VI program until watching Secretary Work’s presentation, but I am very interested to know more. I’ve seen amphibs embark Riverine Command Boats and am curious how this program is related, if at all. Google results were nil after a few searches – can anyone with the gouge on this craft post to comments?

Finally, what is remarkable about this is that in only three years after CDR Hedrix’s article went to press, the Navy seems like it is seriously considering the implications of this radically different kind of deployment scheme. Though it may not seem fast to some, I think that compared to other historical shifts, the exploration of influence squadrons has occurred rather quickly.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency.