Tag Archives: Operational concepts

Every Ship a SAG and the LUSV Imperative

By Lieutenant Kyle Cregge, USN

The US Navy’s strike capacity is shrinking. As highlighted in Congressional testimony with senior leaders, the Surface Navy is set to lose 788 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells through the end of the Davidson Window in 2027. This 8.85% of current Surface Navy VLS capacity represents the equivalent of eight Arleigh Burke-class destroyers leaving the fleet as the Ticonderoga cruisers are retired. However, even the most aggressive and expensive shipbuilding alternative would not return equivalent VLS numbers to the surface fleet until the late 2030s. Present maritime infrastructure capacity further strangles efforts to buy additional Arleigh Burke destroyers, Constellation-class frigates, and Virginia-class submarines. These complex multi-mission ships cost billions of dollars and years of investment in build times, and yet service life extension proposals are equally unsavory. From extending aging Ticonderoga cruisers to arming merchants or Expeditionary Fast Transports, none are cheap, scalable, or sustainable in the long-term. All this while the world’s largest navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), continues its building spree at speed and scale, delivering combatants equipped with long-range anti-ship missiles meant to challenge America’s role as balancer in Eurasia.

Figure 1. Click to expand. Surface Ship VLS Data, Adopted from the CBO’s analysis of the Navy’s FY23 Shipbuilding Plan.

Where can the Surface Navy focus its efforts for future growth given the financial constraints and maritime industrial base capacity? What capabilities are most likely to enable a replaceable, lethal force to deter or deny Chinese aggression from the Taiwan Strait to the Second Island Chain?

The Surface Navy must build and deploy the Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV) at scale as small surface combatants, to economically restore and grow VLS capacity over the next decade. A concept for its implementation and other USVs like it, “Every Ship a SAG,” proposes a distributed future force architecture, where every manned ship can operate far afield from each other, while each is surrounded by multiple VLS-equipped and optionally manned LUSVs. Doctrinally, a Surface Action Group (SAG) is defined as a temporary or standing organization of combatant ships, other than aircraft carriers, tailored for a specific tactical mission. Together, these manned-unmanned teams will form more lethal SAGs than a single ship or manned surface action group operating alone. Led by Surface Warfare Lieutenants as Unmanned Task Group Commanders, this USV-augmented SAG offers a lethal instantiation of the next-generation hybrid fleet.

“Every Ship a SAG” provides a scalable and flexible model for incorporating current and future unmanned systems with the existing surface fleet. The fleet could rapidly up-gun conventional platforms and even amphibious ships, Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), or Expeditionary Staging Bases (ESB) with more lethal USVs as teammates. Lastly, “Every Ship a SAG” offers mitigation for many of the concerns levied at Navy USV concepts, including Hull, Mechanical, and Electrical (HM&E) reliability, maintenance, and spare parts; force protection; C5I/Networks; autonomy; and the role of USVs in deterrence. Mutual support from a manned ship reduces operational risk and will enable the small crew led by the Surface Warfare Early Commander to embark on their USV to execute critical manned operations during dangerous or restricted waters evolutions. These small teams then debark to a designated mothership and perform USV mission integration when the USV is in an unmanned mode. “Every Ship a SAG” offers a critical next step between today’s nascent USV capability and a more advanced, USV-forward, and independent future.

Now is a critical moment in history. LUSVs must be scaled to meet the Navy’s warfighting mission, and Congress must resource the supporting pillars to ensure effective outcomes. When every manned US Navy ship is a Surface Action Group, this distributed hybrid fleet will be more lethal, survivable, and ready to fight and win maritime wars against peer adversaries.

Defining “Every Ship a SAG”

The Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations have consistently argued for the introduction of unmanned systems and their incorporation into the fleet. Leaders have envisioned LUSV as a 200-300ft low-cost, high endurance, and reconfigurable corvette accommodating up to 32 VLS cells. The ship is programmed to be bought in Fiscal Year 2025 with subsequent buys out to 2027 with a three-ship purchase at $241 million per ship. The Navy’s unmanned strategies have referred to LUSVs as “adjunct magazines,” providing greater strike and anti-surface warfare weapons. This vision is appropriate, but has narrowly scoped the ship’s offensive technical capabilities. Myriad experts have penned compelling, lengthy vignettes illustrating USVs in the fleet, with advantages including sensor networking, depth of fire, survivability, and many others.

The “Every Ship a SAG” construct offers a vision for weaponized USVs that is easily understood; from the average fleet sailor to senior leaders to (maybe most critically) Congress. In addition, the concept acknowledges the current fleet design both in Strike Groups and Surface Action Groups, while facilitating the introduction of unmanned ships within a task organization framework common to manned units. Operationally, LUSVs will meet specific, near-term needs in support of national strategies via distributed sea denial and strike, while enhancing the lethality of the surface fleet through increased missile magazine distribution and capacity. When integrated into the force, LUSVs will increase the survivability of the fleet by complicating an adversary’s ability to target and attack surface forces. What does this look like in practice?

In a peacetime environment and workup cycle, the Unmanned Operations Center (UOC) and USV Divisions in Port Hueneme, California, or a local Fleet Maritime Operations center, would manage the traditional “manning,” training, and equipping functions of ship workup cycles towards integrating into Strike Groups and SAGs. These LUSV Divisions would be led by Early Command Junior Officers. In fact, the Surface Community has already begun selecting officers for Unmanned Task Group Early Command roles both in Port Hueneme and in Bahrain with Task Force 59.

Having been assigned to units for scheduled deployments, LUSVs would attach to the designated ships in the deployment group, providing greater flexibility to Combatant Commanders in force packages. Just as the MH-60 Romeo community deploys expeditionary detachments of pilots and aircrew to cruisers and destroyers, these Early Command officers and a small crew would embark a ship, or series of ships, serving in a variety of modalities as expert controllers, emergency maintainers, and expeditionary operators. A key distinction between the helicopter detachment concept and command is the interchangeability of USVs, moving from independent expeditionary command with a manned crew, to embarking on a mothership or series of motherships supporting unmanned operations.

Figure 2: A top-level view comparing USV employment models with generalized benefits and limitations. (Author-generated graphic)

As demonstrated in Figure 2, LUSVs would operate at distances where the manned ship can provide mutual support and respond if needed. This might include periods within the visible horizon but also episodic surges well over the horizon for specific missions. From a lethality perspective, the additional VLS cells and sensors (in the Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle) offer enhanced battlespace awareness and depth of fire than is available with a single ship. While others have argued for pushing attritable USVs far forward towards threats, treating every manned ship as a SAG with its LUSVs in escort will address many of the issues highlighted by leaders, including Congressional representatives.

Concerning reliability and maintenance, the Navy has based LUSV prototypes on existing commercial ship designs while conducting further land and sea-based testing and validating its critical technologies and subsystems. While designed to operate for extended periods without intervention, the Unmanned Expeditionary Detachment will be able to support emergent repair or troubleshooting if necessary.

For concerns of autonomy or ethical use of weapons from unmanned units, LUSVs will rely on human-in-the-loop (HITL) for command and control of weapons employment decisions. Therefore an on-scene commander simplifies network and communications requirements between the manned fleet and its LUSV escorts. Others have also argued for unmanned systems to be attritable, and to be sure, it would be preferable to lose an LUSV to a manned ship. However, these will still be multi-million dollar combatants with exquisite technology that should not fall into an adversary’s hands – much in the same way how Fifth Fleet dealt with Iranian attempts to capture a US Saildrone in 2022. Having a local manned combatant nearby will support kinetic and non-kinetic force protection of the LUSV, regardless of the theater or threat.

USVs Ranger and Nomad unmanned vessels underway in the Pacific Ocean near the Channel Islands on July 3, 2021. (US Navy Photo)

Finally, treating an LUSV as a force multiplier with a certain number of VLS cells is in line with previous arguments to count the fleet via means other than ship hulls, and simplifies the LUSV’s deterrent value as just another ship that delivers a specific capability at a discount, just as other manned ships do.

Sequencing and Scaling “Every Ship a SAG”

No vision for USV integration into the Surface Force would be complete without considering how these systems would fit into the career pipeline of current and future Surface Warfare Officers and their enlisted teams. In an “Every Ship a SAG” model, LUSV ships would start as individual early commands for post-Division Officer Lieutenants, whereas multiple LUSVs would be organized into a Squadron, led by a post-Department Head Early Command Officer. The Surface Community executed this model with its Mark VI Patrol Craft before their recent retirement, and similarly these squadrons would be organized under the nascent USV Divisions, who have a direct line to the experimentation and tactical development done by the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC), and specifically for unmanned systems, in Surface Development Squadron One (SURFDEVRON).

Cmdr. Jeremiah Daley, commanding officer, Unmanned Surface Vehicle Division One, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, and Capt. Shea Thompson, commodore, Surface Development Squadron One, tour USV Sea Hunter at Naval Station Point Loma, California, (Sept. 28, 2022, DOD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

The surface community is leading the charge towards a hybrid fleet by advancing USV operational concepts and integrating unmanned experience into a hybrid career path. The first salvo in this career movement was launched in 2021, with the establishment of the Unmanned Early Command positions, but scaling this hybrid model is both critical and beneficial. The community will only benefit from commanding officers with expertise and insights in employing a hybrid surface fleet. As pipelines are clarified and unmanned opportunities grow, officers would transition from one expeditionary tour leading a detachment controlling and maintaining an LUSV, back into Division Officer, Department Head, Executive, and Commanding Officer roles in traditional at-sea commands directing the employment of the same LUSVs. Just as the SWO Nuke community develops expertise in both conventional and nuclear fields at each level of at-sea tours, a future hybrid fleet necessitates competencies in fields like robotics, engineering, applied mathematics, physics, computer science, and cyber.

Lastly, SWO professional experiences and investments in training and education for the use of unmanned systems would further Navy and Department of Defense objectives around Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, and Digital Transformation. With unmanned systems, deploying new HM&E or weapons payloads may be a simpler task compared to accelerating fleet data collection and its subsequent use in software development and delivery. Task Force 59 explicitly linked these issues as the Fifth Fleet Unmanned and Artificial Intelligence Task Force.

“Every Ship a SAG” on a Digital Ocean

Some may question whether “Every Ship a SAG” aligns with the already successful work of Task Force 59, directed by Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Commander, Naval Forces Central Command, and Captain Michael Brasseur, the Task Force’s Commodore. Captain Brasseur has long advocated for increased AI and Unmanned Integration into the Navy, going back to his time as Co-Founder and first Director of NATO’s Maritime Unmanned Systems Innovation and Coordination Cell (MUSIC^2). He convincingly argued for a “Digital Ocean” Concept where drones:

“Propelled by wind, wave, and solar energy… carry  sensors that can collect data critical to unlocking the untapped potential of the ocean…. [to] exploit enormous swaths of data with artificial intelligence- enhanced tools to predict weather patterns, get early warning of appearing changes and risks, ensure the free flow of trade, and keep a close eye on migration patterns and a potential adversary’s ships and submarines.”

Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, left, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, shakes hands with Capt. Michael D. Brasseur, the first commodore of Task Force (TF 59) during a commissioning ceremony for TF 59 onboard Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Sept. 9. TF 59 is the first U.S. Navy task force of its kind, designed to rapidly integrate unmanned systems and artificial intelligence with maritime operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth)

Captain Brasseur has implemented his prudent and innovative vision in the Fifth Fleet Area of Responsibility. Task Force 59 is a success whose model is likely to be adopted in other theaters. Rather than conflict with the “Digital Ocean” model, “Every Ship a SAG” complements this work in line with missions of the US Navy as Congressman Mike Gallagher recently updated and codified in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. The Wisconsin Representative edited the Title 10 mission of the Navy such that the service “shall be organized, trained, and equipped for the peacetime promotion of the national security interests and prosperity of the United States and prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea.” In short: a “Digital Ocean” and all it enables serves the peacetime promotion of American national security interests and prosperity, especially in coordination with our allies and partners.

“Every Ship a SAG” postures the Navy for prompt and sustained combat operations incident to the sea. Both missions have been a part of the U.S. Navy since its inception, and both visions are applicable as unmanned ships enter our fleets. Further, LUSVs retain additional utility below the level of armed conflict. To support UOC training, experimentation, and manned ship certifications, LUSVs would serve as simulated opposition forces during high-end exercises, reducing demand on manned sustainment forces, or enabling higher-end threat presentations. Precisely in these scenarios are the venues whereby the fleet can integrate new systems and networks while bridging toward operational concepts for unmanned systems as LUSVs earn increased confidence. In the interim and foreseeable future, however, “Every Ship a SAG” remains the scalable, flexible model for deployed LUSVs within current fleet operations. 

Sober Acknowledgement of Critical Pillars

Unmanned ships and various other transformational technologies are not a panacea for the current and future threats facing the US Navy. Even the promises and methodologies proposed here rely upon critical readiness pillars, each of which could warrant deep individual examinations but are worth mentioning.

Even if the US Navy built a certain number of LUSVs to replace lost VLS capacity, failure to resource them or manage them effectively would still likely doom the program. The fleet must understand and plan for the “total cost of ownership” of a hybrid fleet. These units will still require manpower at various levels and a maintenance infrastructure to sustain them in fleet concentration areas. Nor can the fleet avoid at-sea time to test, integrate, and experiment with these systems, much in the same way that RADM Wayne E. Meyer emphasized, build a little, test a little, learn a lot,” with the success of the Aegis Weapons System. The Navy has made efforts to assuage Congressional concerns about reliability through investment in land-based testing. Yet the Surface Navy will need continued, reliable resourcing to continue that testing afloat while integrating LUSVs with traditional forces and experimenting with future concepts.

Characterizing those costs are beyond what is available in open-source, but wide-ranging demand for talent is imposing costs across the public and private sectors. Similarly dire is the state of munitions, as highlighted at the Surface Navy Association National Symposium by Commander, Fleet Forces Command, Admiral Caudle who “noted that [even] if the Navy had ready its 75 mission-capable ships, ‘their magazines wouldn’t all be full.’” Put simply: no amount of LUSVs built at economic costs will be worth anything if they lack the appropriate weapons to place in their launchers.

Lastly, the adaption of agile practices to implement better software, data, AI models, etc., is critical for the fleet to field increasingly capable and autonomous USVs. The Department of Defense and the Navy have made various investments in this direction. These include but are not limited to the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems (PEO IWS) “The Forge” working to accelerate ship combat system modernizations and development of the Integrated Combat System; to the Naval Postgraduate School’s new Office of Research and Innovation, to the type-command AI Task Forces. Each is working to provide value across various programs in the digital space. Resourcing, integration, and acceleration of those efforts are crucial.

Figure 3: Proposed priority pillars for success for the LUSV program, paired with a collection of Wayne Hughes’ Cornerstones of Naval Operations from Fleet Tactics and a posthumous article.

Individually, each pillar is a wicked problem, but we must take a sober look at those requirements while examining the same realities in the maritime industrial base. The reality appears that little can be done in the near term to accelerate new ship deliveries of complex multi-mission combatants built in Bath, Maine, and Pascagoula, Mississippi. At present, Fincantieri Marine in Wisconsin is the sole yard for FFG-62, while the remaining large shipyards pursue some collection of ESBs, littoral connectors, and generally, more multi-mission units. Fundamentally, a ship like LUSV is the only near-team option to accelerate a pre-war ship buildup given the PLAN’s construction speed.

As the world’s only Navy with a near-term plan and resourcing to meet and exceed 355 ships, the PLAN along with its fellow services has delivered longer-range weapons at greater capacities than the United States for years. By all available open-source data, the US Navy is falling behind the PLAN in the marathon of naval power while the PLAN accelerates toward future advantages.

Figure 4: Comparison of U.S. to PLAN fleet count totals, based on Congressional Research Service reporting on Chinese Military Modernization since 2005.i

Naval writers and thinkers can parse arguments about quantity versus quality, what the right metric is to assess fleet strength, or whether in a joint, Navy vs. Anti-Navy fight, a pure-maritime comparison is warranted. These are valuable discussions. Regardless, the US Navy’s Surface Forces onboard strike and anti-surface warfare capacities will continue to shrink in the near-term while Chinese threats accelerate. Furthermore, the Chinese industrial base capacity far exceeds American capacity at present. The relationship between US Navy leaders and industry could be described as frosty at best, with recent comments from the Chief of Naval Operations to industry including statements to “Pick up the pace… and prove [you have extra capacity]” and from the Commander of Fleet Forces Command stating that he is “not forgiving” industry’s delays.

Given the long-term buys of multi-mission combatants, national shipyards appear unlikely to generate increased efficiencies, accelerated timelines, or better-quality ships if they continue to build only the multi-billion dollar multi-mission combatants they have previously built. Accelerating LUSV procurement across the six shipyards solicited for LUSV concepts would provide increased capital and demand signal for the shipbuilding industry while providing complementary capabilities to the fleet. Yet while the LUSV can and should be a domestic program for growth, corvette-sized unmanned ships with VLS could easily fall into cooperative build plans with the various allies and partners who have frigate-sized, VLS-equipped combatants. The Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) technology-sharing agreement could provide an additional avenue for foreign construction. Further US coordination with Japan and South Korea could also prove fruitful, as the two East Asian allies represent the second and third largest global commercial shipbuilders  behind China.

While refining broader LUSV programs, it is worth considering the differences in shipbuilding costs between choosing LUSVs in a SAG compared to traditional manned combatants. Figure 5 provides a table of notional Surface Action Groups based on the fleet of today through 2027, while Figure 6 presents a table with the future ship programs and their costs.

Figure 5: Hypothetical future SAG LUSV force packages and VLS comparisons with current fleet combatants.
Figure 6: Hypothetical future SAG LUSV force packages and VLS comparisons with future fleet combatants.

Congressional Budget Office estimates for future programs like SSN(X) and DDG(X) present stark realities. The next-generation programs could run costs up to $6.3 billion and $3.3 billion, respectively. By comparison, if the Surface Navy chose to pursue an expanded LUSV buy to recapitalize the 788 VLS cells planned to disappear through 2027, this would require 25 32-cell LUSVs, totaling 800 cells. At $241 million per LUSV, the total (shipbuilding-only) costs would be $6.025 billion, or approximately less than a single SSN(X) or two DDG(X)s. While LUSV has a reduced collection of mission sets by comparison to future submarines and destroyers, it remains a ship that can conceivably be built in at least six American shipyards. Further, future LUSVs purpose-built to support Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) could hypothetically resolve the issue of the margin of the DDG-51 hull form being “maxed out” in space, weight, air, power, and cooling. Rather than a future large surface combatant required to have each capability resident in a single hull, as in DDG(X), a CPS LUSV in escort with a Flight III DDG may represent a proven ship design and better value, that other companies are attempting to support.

Ultimately, there are myriad ways to frame budgetary realities, but LUSV is the only cost-effective method for the surface force to quickly scale VLS capacity within existing force structure and given the present maritime industrial base.


The Surface Navy has a crucial opportunity to strengthen its capabilities and enhance its readiness by building and deploying LUSVs at scale. The “Every Ship a SAG” concept remains rooted in the intellectual work going back nearly a decade to “Distributed Lethality,” “Hunter-killer SAGs,” and their incorporation into Distributed Maritime Operations – only now with unmanned combatants. This manned-unmanned model provides a feasible solution for incorporating unmanned systems into the Surface Warfare Officer career path and forming more lethal Surface Action Groups for the future fight.

“Every Ship a SAG” addresses the concerns raised about Navy USV concepts and presents a clear vision for the future of wartime maritime operations. As the global security situation continues to evolve, the Surface Navy must take decisive action and invest in LUSVs to ensure it is prepared to meet its warfighting mission. It is time for Congress to fully support this effort by providing the necessary resources to bring the “Every Ship a SAG” model to life. Act now and make every ship a Surface Action Group.

Lieutenant Kyle Cregge is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He is the Prospective Operations Officer for USS PINCKNEY (DDG 91). The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or the Department of Defense.


i. O’Rourke, Ronald. “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.” December 1, 2022.

ii. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress.” 2011. Pages 6, 12, and 25. Average Costs for New Flight IIA Destroyers based on averaging multi-year procurement of DDGs 114-116, coming to $1,847 Million per ship.

iii. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress.” 2022. Page 25. Table A-1. Per ship cost determined based on “Estimated Combined Procurement Cost of DDGs 1000, 1001, and 1002” in millions as shown in annual Navy budget submissions, using the FY23 Budget submission dividing the three ships’ cost by three.

iv. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy LPD-17 Flight II and LHA Amphibious Ship Programs: Background and Issues for Congress”. 2022. Pages 1 and 6. AND https://www.navy.mil/Resources/Fact-Files/Display-FactFiles/Article/2169795/aircraft-carriers-cvn/

v. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” 2021. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/20971801-rl32418-12 Page 9.

vi. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress.” 2022. Page 9.

vii. Congressional Budget Office. “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2023 Shipbuilding Plan”. 2022. https://www.cbo.gov/publication/58447 Table 7, “Average Costs per Ship Over the 2023–2052 Period for Flight III DDG”.

viii. Ibid, for FFG-62 Frigates.

ix. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Constellation (FFG-62) Class Frigate Program: Background and Issues for Congress”. 2021. Congressional Research Service.  https://sgp.fas.org/crs/weapons/R44972.pdf

x. CBO. Navy FY23 Shipbuilding Plan Analysis. Table 7. “Average Costs” DDG(X).

xi. Ibid. “Average Costs”. LPD(X), LHA-6, CVN-78.

xii. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress” 2021. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/20971801-rl32418-12 Page 9.

xiii. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress.” 2022. Page 9.

xiv. O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy DDG(X) Next-Generation Destroyer Program: Background and Issues for Congress” 2022. Page 2.

Featured Image: The guided missile destroyers USS Mustin (DDG 89), foreground, and USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) steam through the Philippine Sea during a replenishment at sea Sept. 18, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul Kelly/Released)

Can John Arquilla’s Rules of New Age Warfare Be Taken to Sea?

By Robert C. Rubel

Thomas Friedman’s 13 April New York Times opinion piece recounts an interview with John Arquilla, a distinguished former grand strategy instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School.  In explaining Ukraine’s impressive military performance in the face of the Russian invasion, Arquilla cites three rules of new age warfare from his book Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare, and their application is quite fitting.  If these rules concocted for cyberwarfare apply to ground warfare, might they also apply to warfare at sea?  If so, what are the implications?

Arquilla’s three rules are as follows:

  1. Many and small beats large and heavy
  2. Finding always beats flanking
  3. Swarming always beats surging

These rules are few and simply stated – generally a good thing when it comes to parsing a complex phenomenon like war.  And they do have a true new age feel to them; terms like many, small, finding, and swarming convey the notion that information technology in the form of micro-miniaturization makes even small weapons more powerful.  That said, there are words in the rules that raise alarms; categorical words like always convey a superficiality that experienced warfighters and analysts immediately suspect. But nonetheless, it is worth exploring how these rules could impact future naval warfare and fleet design.

Rule 1: Many and Small Beats Large and Heavy

As missiles become faster, longer range, smarter, and even harder to defeat, they might very well challenge the traditional relationship between capability and tonnage. The introduction of potent hypersonic missiles adds saliency to the application of this rule to naval warfare, calling into question the vulnerability of large capital ships such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The most powerful weapons of yore, namely major caliber guns and jet aircraft, required large hulls to support their operations and the remainder of fleet design followed from there. However, missiles tend to break the relationship between weapon power and ship displacement, just as they break the relationship between capability and cost; hundreds of thousands of Tomahawk missiles could have been bought for the same price as the F-35 program. 

A missile-centric fleet design that took advantage of the new opportunities might consist of numerous smaller units of various types. The nascent U.S. Marine Corps concept of small detachments operating anti-ship missile launchers from dispersed locations reflects that logic as does – albeit incompletely – the U.S. Navy’s concept of Distributed Maritime Operations. Operating a highly dispersed force would complicate enemy targeting.

Moving past the categorical nature of the rule, we must also acknowledge that operating dispersed forces in the maritime environment is not the same as small groups of soldiers toting Javelin anti-tank missiles. For starters, deploying and sustaining a dispersed force will be more difficult than current battle groups composed of large ships. Then there is the matter of command and control. Since the conceptual emergence of “network-centric warfare” in the late 1990s, the vision of a dispersed, heterogeneous force knitted together by a network has been at least the tacit basis for communications and data processing developments. The various challenges to realizing this vision have not yet been overcome, and so adopting highly dispersed operations before such a comprehensive and resilient battle force network is operational would require a new and more sophisticated approach to mission command. These are just a few concerns that make application of the rule at sea less than straightforward. Nonetheless, the inherent character of modern missiles does add credibility to the rule when it comes to naval warfare.

Rule 2: Finding Always Beats Flanking

Putting aside the word always, the rule would not at first glance seem to apply at sea, where ships can maneuver “fluidly” as it were. There is perhaps some whiff of flanking in the concept of threat sector. If battle group defenses, say the positioning of escorts or combat air patrol stations is oriented on an expected threat sector, then an enemy that can succeed in approaching outside of that sector might be regarded as flanking. But this is speculative. However, if we think of flanking at sea as achieving an operational level ambush, we can see it exhibited in historic naval campaigns and battles. At Midway, the US task force took a position to the northeast of Midway Island and succeeded in ambushing the Japanese carrier force. In March of 1805 Admiral Horatio Nelson took a “secret position” between Sardinia and Mallorca hoping to ambush Admiral Villenueve’s French fleet if it sailed toward Italy or Egypt. 

Now, in the Midway case, the Japanese forces did not find the American task force until too late and suffered the loss of three aircraft carriers (Hiryu was sunk later, after the US task force had been located). In Nelson’s case the ambush would have worked because Villenueve, even though his orders were to escape the Mediterranean via Gibraltar, had planned to sail east of Mallorca, which would have led him into Nelson’s trap. However, a merchant ship had seen Nelson’s force and reported it to Villenueve, who altered his route to west of Mallorca. If the Japanese had located the American task force earlier, the results of Midway would likely have been much different. Both examples reveal the critical importance of finding first.

Anyone familiar with the writing of legendary Naval Postgraduate School Professor Wayne Hughes’ and his principle of “strike effectively first,” will immediately see the connection with this rule. Getting in an effective first strike requires finding effectively first, and no naval ambush can occur if this does not happen. This in turn requires enemy scouting efforts are ineffective and the enemy commander remains ignorant of the ambushing force. The act of finding and striking effectively first should not be viewed in momentary isolation or as singularly decisive, because command decision-making at all levels will be critical in maneuvering these finding and striking forces prior to successful engagements. So, while the term flanking does not translate well into naval warfare, its implied dependency on maneuver does carry over.

Rule 3: Swarming Always Beats Surging

The third rule is a bit trickier to relate to naval warfare. Arquilla states in the interview that “You don’t need big numbers to swarm the opponent with a lot of small smart weapons.” The implication is that instead of achieving mass or concentration of force using symmetrical weapons, tanks versus tanks, for instance, forces can make asymmetric attacks by using smart weapons not tied to big platforms, i.e., many teams of Javelin shooters versus columns of Russian tanks. In that sense the third rule seems to be merely a restatement of the first. That said, swarming is a term that has taken on new meaning in an age of smart drones. The notion of a large number of small things “besetting” a target conveys Arquilla’s implicit meaning. 

Picking this apart a bit more, let’s regard surging as the assembling of a force or capability that is greater than that of the enemy it is confronting – the traditional concentration of force, either at the operational or tactical level. Swarming, on the other hand, implies coming at a particular enemy target from everywhere, whether the besetting attack is centrally planned or whether it is based on the self-synchronization of the individual swarming entities. Surging implies a numerical relationship between the opposing forces, one presumably outnumbering the other. Swarming involves no such relationship – it is about having enough individual units to beset a target from all sides either simultaneously or in rapid sequence. Swarming seems generally to apply to the tactical, unit or even weapons level.

An instantiation of swarming in naval warfare would involve the use of deception drones or missiles meant to saturate an enemy ship’s defenses. The US Navy devised an elemental form of swarming tactics in its attempt, after the showdown with the Soviet Fleet in the Mediterranean in 1973, to generate some kind of anti-ship capability, which it had let lapse after World War II. The tactic involved a formation of five aircraft approaching the enemy ship at low level. Flying in close formation it would look like one blip on enemy radars. At a certain point the aircraft would starburst, fanning out in different directions and then turning back in based on careful timing such that they would arrive at their bomb release points in rapid succession. The maneuver was meant to confuse the target ship’s fire control systems and at the end saturate defenses such that at least one aircraft would be able to reach its release point. 

Surging implies Lanchestrian calculations that reveal the superiority of numbers; swarming is about creating confusion, using relatively large numbers for sure, but not in the strict relative sense addressed by Lanchester’s equations.1 This point is widely appreciated: China is thought to have developed large numbers of deceptive drones and missile warheads that can deploy decoys to achieve confusion and saturation of US Navy ship defenses.

At the present state of the art, achieving swarming would still require either a large number of launching platforms or engagement from relatively close range.  If the Navy did adopt the concept of a flotilla of smaller missile combatants there would have to be significant covering and deception efforts to get them into position to use their missiles and decoys. On the other hand, cover for a salvo of long range missiles might be provided by long range bombers that could launch decoys in addition to anti-ship missiles. However, the central point is that swarming – no matter how it is achieved – offers potential relief from the brute force logic of Lanchester’s equations.

Taking the Rules to Sea

If we combine Arquilla’s three rules, what do we get in terms of a picture of future naval warfare? First, it would seem that we could articulate a rather more nuanced rule: the force that can find, evaluate and target first will have a significant advantage. However, if both sides forces are composed of smaller, dispersed missile-shooting units, be they surface, air or subsurface, both fleets would likely be more resilient if they had to absorb a first strike. A naval battle would then become a geographically dispersed, cat-and-mouse game of progressive attrition. The game board would include not only the ocean, including the air above, adjacent land features and the depths below, but space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. If swarming attacks were fully developed and employed, the only defense would be to avoid detection through stand-off, stealth, or deception.  The set piece naval battle would be replaced by an extended campaign of raids and quick strikes, followed by rapid retreat into sanctuaries or out of range. Knowledge of the tactical and operational situation would be intermittent and mostly fragmentary. The chances of putting together a large and coordinated missile salvo from dispersed units would be small, assuming the enemy is able to disrupt friendly networks in some way, so each unit must be armed with missiles that have the ability to create their own terminal swarms. This would allow for a form of swarming on a larger scale; dispersed units would operate on the basis of mission orders, and a swarming rule set, including a precise definition of calculated risk appropriate to the situation. The operation of German U-boat wolf packs in World War II constituted a nascent form of such a battle.

Neither the formalized collision of lines of dreadnoughts nor the long range groping of carrier battles are likely to characterize future naval warfare. Arquilla’s three rules imply intermittent and dispersed missile-based campaigns of attrition that will extend over days, weeks or even months; the quick and decisive clash at sea could very well be a thing of the past. If this is so, fleet design must be rethought. Missiles, not tactical aircraft dropping bombs, will be the decisive weapons. The Fleet’s offensive power must be distributed among a larger number of platforms, and its doctrine must include ground and long-range air elements. Logistics for such a force that would allow it to remain in contested areas for extended periods must be worked out. Sensing and processing as well as resilient communications will, in effect, become the new “capital ship” of the Navy, as these will allow the offensive missiles to be most effective in accordance with Arquilla’s rules. There will be a continuing need for some residual legacy forces, as the Navy has a multi-faceted and global mission, but for high-end naval combat in littoral waters, a force designed around Arquilla’s rules will be needed in order to fight at acceptable levels of strategic risk.

Does all this have implications for traditional naval concepts like command of the sea and sea control? Almost certainly. Command of the sea has heretofore meant that the weaker navy either could not or would not directly confront the stronger. This allowed the stronger navy to use the seas for its own purposes and deny such use to the weaker. But if sea power becomes atomized, composed of many missile shooting units, then the deterrent basis for command of the sea evaporates. We see a nascent form of this already with the Chinese land-based DF-21 and 26 anti-ship ballistic missiles. While this condition may initially be limited to specific littoral regions, the continued development of naval forces shaped by Arquilla’s rules would imply that command of the sea could be contested by weaker navies farther and farther out at sea, to the point that the concept loses meaning. Sea control, the function of protecting things like merchant traffic or geographic points, would become the paramount concept and demand the utmost in dispersion of forces – strategic, operational and tactical. Thus navies desiring to produce for their nations the traditional benefits of command of the sea would have to be composed of numerous and therefore cheaper units so that naval power would be available at any and all points needed, whenever that need arose.

Chaos theory shows how complex phenomena can emerge from simple rule sets. If we tease out their threads, Arquilla’s three simple rules for new age warfare seem to be able to perform that trick with regards to naval warfare and the design of navies. We might look askance at the categorical tone he uses in those rules, but that should not cause us to dismiss them as new age fluff. Some basis for fleet design is needed beyond the narrow incorporation of the next better radar or aircraft, and these three rules seem to be worth considering in that endeavor.

Robert C. Rubel is a retired Navy captain and professor emeritus of the Naval War College. He served on active duty in the Navy as a light attack/strike fighter aviator. At the Naval War College he served in various positions, including planning and decision-making instructor, joint education adviser, chairman of the Wargaming Department, and dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He retired in 2014, but on occasion continues to serve as a special adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published over thirty journal articles and several book chapters.


1. In its simplest form it is Aa2 = Bb2 where A and B equal the quality of the respective forces; a and b represent the number of forces. This reflects the dominance of numbers in calculating the outcome of engagements.

Featured Image: KEKAHA, Hawaii – Artillery Marines from 1st Battalion, 12th Marines escort a Navy Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System launcher vehicle ashore aboard Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands, Hawaii, Aug. 16, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Sea Control 264 – Marine and Naval Aviation with Nate Lauterbach

By Walker Mills

Nathan Lauterbach joins CIMSEC’s Jonathon Frerichs to talk about his recent article in USNI Proceedings “Marine Aviation is Naval Aviation.”

Download Sea Control 264 – Marine and Naval Aviation with Nate Lauterbach



1. “Marine Aviation Is Naval Aviation,” by Nathan Lauterbach, USNI Proceedings, April 2021.

2. Commandant’s Planning Guidance, by David Berger, United States Marine Corps, July 2019.

3. Tentative Manual for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, by United States Marine Corps, 2021. 

4. “Marines Update Force Design After a Year of Experimentation in the Field,” Megan Eckstein, USNI News, April 26, 2021. 


  • Jonathon Frerichs
  • Keagan Ingersoll
  • Walker Mills
  • Nate Lauterbach

Walker Mills is Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact the Sea Control team at Seacontrol@cimsec.org.