Tag Archives: readiness

Are You Ready for This? Properly Defining Joint Readiness

By C. Travis Reese

“Any military activities that do not contribute to the conduct of a present war are justifiable only if they contribute to preparedness for a possible future one.” MCDP-1 Warfighting

Defense of the nation is a never-ending task. It is achieved by balancing readiness for today’s threats and tomorrow’s challenges. The relationship between current and future readiness is not a clean demarcation but a part of a continuum. Yet, when it comes to having a prepared force, the ambiguity around how the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) defines readiness is muddying the prioritization between current threats and future modernization efforts. Actions in Ukraine are reinvigorating how DoD leaders evaluate preparedness for conflict. This makes the current era as important a time as any to understand how to assess overall readiness and the requirements to manage risk as the force prepares to address a peer adversary.

What would a better method of defining institutional readiness look like? In a nutshell, it would require DoD to establish an easily understood criteria for institutional readiness. This will allow co-equal comparison between the current and future to manage the risk between investment and divestment as it applies to the transition between the “as is” force and the future “to be” force. Why? Because as the character of war inevitably evolves it is necessary to know and develop those first principles of readiness that enable DoD to succinctly identify needed changes. This must be done in advance of when those changes may seem likely so that the wrong force is not maintained beyond its absolute utility and the current force is not undermined in its preparedness when disruption is not needed.

Readiness is the purpose behind the process

The core concern of DoD leaders is the readiness of the force, both for current and future challenges. Talk of concepts, manpower, capability, acquisition, forward basing, etc. are attributes and features of one great concern: readiness. There is no common definition of readiness across DoD, but there are some frameworks to help understand the components of current readiness and generating future readiness. The Components of Institutional Readiness diagram provides one example:

The Components of Institutional Readiness Diagram represents a framework to help understand the components of current readiness and generating future readiness.

Components of Institutional Readiness

Current readiness is enabled and assessed through the items on the left side of the chart and focused principally within the 5 year time frame of the current Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) (or military budget to the laymen). It is actual and real, not conceptual for which existing assets are committed as determined in the global force management and annual joint assessment process as key activities. It is the writ of commanders (both providers and employers) to assess their forces and identify gaps in capability and capacity based on existing theater Operations Plans (OPLANS). OPLANS are approved through the appropriate chain of command from Combatant Commanders to the Secretary of Defense and clearly identify the approach to engage current threats. They are evaluated through exercises and war games that test and revise the plan to maintain pace with an adversary and not a “past tense” frame of the problem or mission. These are “fight tonight” operations that current forces train to accomplish.

Future readiness is created through the components on the right side. It is largely conceptual in nature and framed through approved scenarios that represent plausible interpretations of future events relative to likely threats. Scenarios are evaluated through a qualitative wargaming process testing concepts, policies, or decisions or a quantitative process of modeling and simulation objectively replicating the environment with testable and repeatable variables and conditions. Both analytic methods when filtered through a net assessment enable discovery of gaps that may impact the future readiness of the force to succeed against future threats. War games and experimentation are used to examine the hypothesis of the future operating environment proposed in the scenarios and evaluate attributes of potential solutions. The results then are extrapolated to the requirements that inform the development of future concepts and their supporting capabilities.

The Iron Triangle of Capabilities, Threats, and Resources

The sustainment of the “as is” force and the creation of the “to be” force is framed by the balance of capabilities, threats, and resources. Different entities within DoD, based on their responsibilities, usually adopt one of the variables as their dominant lens and position. Those viewpoints are not, nor should they be, exclusive since they must be informed by inputs from the other two variables to have any context or meaning at all. Building a thing for a thing’s sake with no appreciation of why or with how much is anathema in any sense, let alone for a military application. Typically, in DoD capabilities are the lens of Services as force developers and force providers. Threats are the focus of the combatant commands as well as the Intelligence Community. Resources (especially money) are the dominant viewpoint of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff given their statutory duties in that regard. There are nuances within that, but that is the organized tension within DoD, which, when managed in collaboration vice competition can be highly effective.

To reconcile those points of view as they apply to future force design, a scenario-based analysis through wargaming or simulation is conducted. The scenario does not dictate the outcome but rather fuels the context to identify the balance between the three variables. Truly useful scenarios are agnostic of solution but present the plausible framework to consider problems and identify the attributes of potential solutions usually within a given timeframe of consideration. Good scenarios allow the introduction of any range of options or approaches. Scenarios for any military context should look and feel like military plans and orders. This realism helps to distinguish the difference between using current means and practices or adopting future ones. Scenarios must be accompanied with a thorough explanation of the factors and ideas that form their creations so they can be modified as needed with new data or plausible projections. Managed iterations of scenarios help to show an evolution of thinking and learning about future problems.

Scenarios that are suitable for wargames at the Department-level to identify future gaps and challenges are the result of interactions among three entities. The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy provides an understanding of the desired “ends” from the National Defense Strategy (NDS) with amplifying detail through the defense planning guidance and framework defense planning scenarios. The Services with interaction from the Joint Staff create a model of the Joint Force applied to the scenarios, giving structure to the potential “ways” of the NDS. This comes in the form of Joint Force Operating Scenarios (JFOS). The JFOS mimics a Level 3 Operation Plan (OPLAN) set in a future operating environment. The Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD(CAPE)) and Service’s programming and budget evaluation offices examine the potential solutions necessary to achieve the ways and provide comparative assessment of the “means” presented by the Services to recommend the best composition for the force. The work of CAPE and other service analytic organizations is generally performed through quantitative modeling and simulation derived from the conditions applied to scenarios and war games. Only one product, the Joint Operating Environment (JOE), produced by the Joint Staff J7 routinely attempts to articulate a plausible future out to twenty years. The JOE is not comprised of any specific scenario but more a well-considered primer of issues influencing future security considerations.

The case for modernization is derived from the results of wargames and analyses from the scenarios and impacts the ability of the Service chiefs to design and fund the needs for the next evolution in the character of conflict. The case for maintaining the current force is based on current threats and emergent conditions which impact the ability of Combatant Commanders to fulfill their approved plans and missions. Suffice to say, there is no substitute for thinking hard about a problem which often corresponds to buying institutional time to think long as well. Planning earlier and including the potential growth in adversary capacity facilitates delivery of capabilities at the time they are needed, not after. Further, it can prevent retaining something long after it is useful, which causes current gaps to become more urgent and draws institutional focus to the present at the expense of the future. There is also a tendency at times to consider readiness by covering as many options through sub-specialization and regionalization in force development. That can provide useful insights, but in general those should be unique exceptions needed for a particular challenge balanced by the general demands of the force with tools that are applicable and adaptable to nearly any circumstance.

Assessing Risk between current and future

Understanding how institutional readiness is derived must be synchronized with a method for weighing risk against current and future threats. Much ink and rhetoric has been expended to complain over who has the best view and need to lead the efforts of force design in DoD. Secretary of Defense staff? Joint Staff? Combatant Commanders? Service Chiefs? A simple answer is “yes”, and it depends on what is being measured. Quite clearly Combatant Commanders come with a regional and threat-specific focus gauged on the near-term. That would make it inappropriate for them to manage efforts and Service-level resources to design a force that requires 10 years on average just to identify and develop. Further, Combatant Commanders compete against each other for resources and do not have a unitary appreciation of the threats. Yet they are totally within their purview to request forces with capabilities that make it possible to achieve assigned missions, and modify those forces as needed to suit the task. Conversely, the Service Secretaries and Chiefs must adjudicate that world-wide view and create forces capable of operating in any climb and place. They must deliver capabilities that require alignment of entire enterprises in complex discovery regardless of how often priorities shift or misguided defense acquisition efforts can be. This can be a complex process which requires OSD, with the aid of the Joint Staff, to provide an objective assessment of the proposed solutions to current and future readiness by the Combatant Commanders and the Services.

Richard Betts’ 1995 book Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences, articulated a framework for thinking about readiness where he argued that decision-makers need to ask three key questions about readiness: Ready for what? Ready for when? And Ready with what? How can Betts’ framework be converted into a common model of comparison between current and future to co-equally weigh the sustainment of the current force against the imperative to modernize? An example is below:

Decision-makers need to ask three key questions about readiness: Ready for what? Ready for when? And Ready with what?

Risk Framework for Capability and Capacity

This model takes the three questions posed by Betts and frames them in three different graphs to help visualize risk and assess value based on the interactive variables of mission relevance, readiness to conduct a mission, and the capability of various force options. The graph under “Ready for What?” shows risk in terms of a military problem based on the likely frequency of occurrence. For example, nuclear forces may rest on the highest risk challenge with the lowest likelihood of occurrence. They are relevant to strategic deterrence but may have limited value in terms of day-to-day competitive activities. This graph also shows that generally lower risk activities (that can be cumulatively consequential to national security) have a higher probability of occurrence opposed to existential concerns. This gives a scale of an investment’s value based on its use case and the risk of not having it poses to our nation and our interests. The graph in Ready for when? shows how the duration of an expected challenge and how quickly it must be responded to factors into the cost of sustained preparedness. An immediate response requirement (ex. hostage rescue) requires a persistent ready posture. This may be opposed to larger scale contingencies that historically have longer periods of indication and warning with corresponding windows in time to prepare. The graph shows how overall daily readiness and training requirements factor into cost and sustainment of unique capabilities. Lastly, under “Ready with what?,” risk can be evaluated in terms what type of force is required for a challenge (large or small) and how long that force will be used. Generally, a short duration mission requires a discrete force of specialized capability, and a longer mission requires a larger force but that will take longer to prepare and enable. That will reflect on the capability of a force to operate effectively and how much investment is required to reach the standard necessary for a planned contingency.

The effectiveness of this model is a function on two factors. First, it converts Betts’ framework into a formula that can be applied to readiness for both current and future challenges to provide co-equal metrics of comparison. Second, it provides a clear criteria and visualization for the significance of those criteria by assessing the risk of maintaining a current capability or necessity of transitioning to a future one. Regardless of the choice, Betts’ framework can help move the Department forward when it comes to weighing risk with more empirical values that balance subjective and objective concerns in current force employment and future force design. 


The DoD has struggled to define institutional readiness and find a risk framework that can be equally applied to future and current concerns. Bett’s framework and other models in this discussion are templates for conducting comparative analysis of current and future risk to identify which focus areas are of primary concern. The framework used for distillation of those focus areas will inform the investment balance and mitigate tension between current urgent and future important concerns. This competition is framed by an acceptable risk level tolerance competition, pitting current and future challenges against each other. If a current challenge is unmitigated and high risk, it may require DoD to de-emphasize evaluation of future objectives. If the future appears to be riskier and the current challenges are as “in hand” as they will ever be, then an emphasis on addressing future concerns would be required. Currently, the DoD does not compare current and future threats to a common framework. The lack of framework creates an inability to weigh efforts and resources for either near term security or long-term effect or to even make an assessment. Instead, they are lumped into a pot of “threats” and sorted out by the whomever is the most successful advocate posturing around a vague definition of the need to be “ready” with very few metrics of prioritization or categorization. The goal of readiness is to avoid “present shock” – a condition in which “we live in a continuous, always-on ‘now’” and lose the sense of long-term direction. This can only be achieved when readiness is clearly defined with common criteria for evaluating the risks of sustainment and modernization of capabilities as they apply to current problems or future dilemmas.

Travis Reese retired from the Marine Corps as Lieutenant Colonel after nearly 21 years of service. While on active duty he served in a variety of billets including tours in capabilities development, future scenario design, and institutional strategy. Mr. Reese is now the Director of Wargaming and Net Assessment for Troika Solutions in Reston, VA.

Featured Image: EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (March 25, 2022) – A formation of 42 F-35A Lightning IIs during a routine readiness exercise at Eielson Air Force Base (EAFB), Alaska, March 25, 2022. The formation demonstrated the 354th Fighter Wing’s (FW) ability to rapidly mobilize fifth-generation aircraft in arctic conditions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong)

How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 5: Material Condition and Availability

Read Part 1 on Combat Training. Part 2 on Firepower. Part 3 on Tactics and Doctrine. Read Part 4 on Technical Standards

By Dmitry Filipoff

Material Condition and Availability

“The very gallantry and determination of our young commanding officers need to be taken into account here as a danger factor, since their urge to keep on, to keep up, to keep station, and to carry out their mission in the face of any difficulty, may deter them from doing what is actually wisest and most profitable in the long run…” –Admiral Chester Nimitz

The post-Cold War Navy made major reforms to a fundamental operating construct of the fleet, its readiness cycle. The readiness cycle of the Navy is a standardized period of maintenance, training, deployment, and sustainment phases that produce ready naval power within a specified timeframe. The deployment schedule the Navy operates on is tied to how its forces are moving along at various phases in the cycle and when they become available for use after having met their needs. 

A readiness cycle should be predictable in that it regularly produces naval power of consistent quality in the absence of major contingencies. From the perspective of a competitor it should be unpredictable in that it has enough margin where it can effectively surge and sustain a large number of forces on short notice to surprise and overwhelm foes if need be. It should then be able to recover from a surge in a reasonable timeframe and reset itself in stride. It should also maintain some consistency while allowing ships to undergo extensive maintenance and upgrade periods as needed.1

A readiness cycle’s viability is based on the deployment rate it serves, where a higher rate of deployment can come at the cost of more unmet needs. A cycle cannot resemble a taut rope, but rather one that keeps enough slack to maintain the necessary resilience and flexibility. These qualities are predicated on respecting the material limits of naval power. National security strategy is bounded by these limits.

During the power projection era the Navy’s readiness cycle lost its discipline. In less than 20 years the Navy has deployed under four separate cycles, and where the two most recent constructs are attempting to restore order and arrest systemic shocks that spiraled out of control. These shocks unbalanced the Navy, sapped its ability to surge the fleet, and incurred significant strategic risk with respect to great power war.

The Power Projection Era and Readiness Cycle Reform

“We kind of lost our way a few years back when we were all doing everything we could to get airplanes and ships forward into the fight…it went on and on and on, and I think that’s where the stress of not only the people and the equipment but also the processes started to break down.” –Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bill Moran

In the new national security environment of the power projection era the Navy felt it needed to increase its ability to surge the fleet on short notice as well as increase its continuous presence in forward areas. The Navy sought to accomplish this in part by making major changes to its readiness cycle through a major reform known as the Fleet Response Plan. The Navy was especially focused on increasing surge capacity, where according to the Naval Transformation Roadmap (2003):

“The recently created Fleet Response Plan (FRP) will significantly increase the rate at which we can augment deployed forces as contingencies require. Under the regular rotation approach…the majority of ships and associated units were not deployed and thus at a point in their Inter-Deployment Readiness Cycle (IDRC) that made it difficult and expensive to swiftly ‘surge’ to a crisis, conflict or for Homeland Defense. The FRP features a change in readiness posture that institutionalizes an enhanced surge capability for the Navy…a revised IDRC is being developed that meets the demand for a more responsive force. With refined maintenance, modernization, manning and training processes, as well as fully-funded readiness accounts, the Fleet can consistently sustain a level of at least 6 surge-capable carrier strike groups, with two additional strike groups able to deploy within approximately 90 days of an emergency order.”2

This surge policy was implemented and approved of just after the Iraq War began. Seven carrier battle groups conducted forward operations in support of the invasion of Iraq, with an eighth deployed in the Pacific. Five of those eight battle groups and air wings had already participated in Operation Enduring Freedom just a year before. A year later seven carrier groups simultaneously deployed in 2004 for the Summer Pulse exercise that intended to demonstrate the FRP’s surge capability.3 In relatively quick succession the Navy surged the fleet multiple times at levels not seen since the Vietnam War.4

One of the most far-reaching changes of habit was an increasing willingness to extend deployment lengths beyond what was previously the norm. Since 1986 the Navy had rigorously adhered to a maximum deployment length of six months, a policy the Global Navy Presence policy described as “inviolate.”5

New strategies concerned with adding forward presence and surge capability often encouraged the Navy to lengthen deployments. From Operation Desert Storm to 9/11 the Navy only granted a few dozen exceptions to the six-month deployment policy. It then granted almost 40 exceptions for Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002, and a year later it granted almost 150 more in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.6 What was once the exception became the norm as ships continued to deploy in excess of six months many years after the large surges that accompanied the starts of those campaigns. From 2008-2011, carrier strike group deployments averaged 6.4 months, which then climbed to 8.2 months in the next three years.7

Table depicting the increase in percentage of deployments whose length exceeded six months. (Source: Center for Naval Analyses report, “The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake?”)

This operating tempo and the Fleet Response Plan proved to be fundamentally unstable and unsustainable. The effects forced the Navy to repeatedly compromise and improvise its schedules to make ends meet and maintain its deployment rate.

Some ships already on deployment had their tours extended on short notice. Longer deployments then created greater maintenance demands, where ships often saw their expected maintenance phase grow by many months. Some even tripled in length.Maintenance overruns started happening more often than not, forcing other ships to deploy sooner to cover the planned operations of ships that found themselves stuck in prolonged maintenance. Meanwhile backlogs and equipment casualty reports were mounting as the fleet was pushed harder and harder and maintenance troubles grew more severe. In spite of all of this the demand for naval power only kept growing.9

Depictions of the preponderance of maintenance overruns from FY 2011-2014 for aircraft carriers and surface combatants. (Source: GAO information provided to Congressional committees on the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan.)

Navy leadership eventually admitted the system was falling apart:

“Unfortunately, the Navy was rarely able to execute the FRP as designed…schedules were adjusted to meet changing combatant-commander demands, maintenance delays, and crisis response. This has caused significant unpredictability for our sailors and maintenance teams, while revealing a host of inefficiencies…Inefficient readiness production and unpredictable schedules are never good, but they have become unsustainable.”10

As negative effects spiraled out of control and cascaded across the Navy’s timetables it had little choice but to take corrective action. A new readiness cycle known as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) was implemented in 2014 in an attempt to bring “predictability” to the cycle.

Among many changes OFRP slightly reduced the amount of time ships would be deployed from 25 percent to 22 percent of the cycle, slowing material degradation and allowing more time for maintenance. A significant amount of time was added to the sustainment phase that follows deployments and comes before the maintenance phase. The surface fleet in particular benefited from a significant extension of the sustainment phase. Warships in this phase are supposed to be surge capable and available for hard training. However, the ships and crews are usually quite spent after six to eight months of forward operations, and more importantly the Navy has typically allocated little funding for significant amounts of training or operating in the sustainment phase.11 Perhaps the most value that comes from the sustainment phase is that ships can use it to get caught up on what maintenance they can.12

The phases of the Navy’s workup cycle under the Fleet Response Plan and its successor, the Optimized Fleet Response Plan. There is some slight variation (by a month or so) in these figures across sources. (Source: GAO information provided to Congressional committees on the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan.)

Navy leadership described a key reform that OFRP attempted, in that it “transitions fleet production of operational availability from a demand based to a supply based model.”13 This new model will hopefully be “disciplined” and “predictable” in nature.14 However, a supply-based model is the only sort of readiness scheme a Navy can realistically run on. 

No fleet that wishes to maintain its consistency can operate under a demand-based model for long because it will eventually spend itself. Naval power is extremely flexible and mobile, where ships can independently conduct many sorts of missions and travel hundreds of miles a day. Operating remotely in international waters can temper foreign political sensitivities such as those that are often associated with hosting foreign troops on land. Naval power can often streamline operations by not having to rely as much on the bureaucracies of foreign countries. All of these qualities can make naval power very attractive to theater commanders and the interagency.

However, a Navy must guard its long-term condition by successfully saying no to excessive demand signals more often than not, which is how a supply-based model is preserved over time. To subscribe to a demand-based model is to put the fleet’s material condition in the hands of combatant commanders whose official responsibilities are to use forces for near-term operations, not maintain them for long-term well-being. 

Number of lost operational days due to maintenance overruns for aircraft carriers, surface combatants, and submarines from FY 2011-2016. According to the GAO these approximately 14,000 days of lost operating time translated into losing the use of 0.5 carriers per year, three surface combatants per year, and 2.8 submarines per year across this period. (Source: GAO Report,”Navy Readiness: Actions Needed to Address Persistent Maintenance, Training, and Other Challenges Facing the Fleet.”)

Even if it operates under something more sustainable the consequences of recent deployment rates can come back to haunt the Navy and force it to pay another price later.

Hard deployment rates accelerate material degradation and can shorten the service lives of ships.15 This creates long-term risk because shortened service life can prompt early retirements. Concerns about gaps in presence and fleet numbers can be exacerbated in the future by ships being forced into early retirement as they become increasingly expensive and time-consuming maintenance burdens. 

Average maintenance backlogs by ship class, FY 2000-2015. It highlights the Optimal Manning Period, a reform the Navy attempted in order to save costs by reducing crew sizes on ships. Optimal Manning was subsequently reversed. (Source: GAO Report, “Navy Force Structure: Actions Needed to Ensure Proper Size and Composition of Ship Crews.”)

Now in order to grow and preserve fleet size the Navy is heavily counting on its ability to modify and extend the lives of many ships past the original estimates.16 But the significant maintenance debts incurred under recent deployment rates will no doubt complicate this endeavor, and add to the Navy’s fears of seeing the fleet shrink even further.

Fleet Availability and National Security Strategy

“I didn’t have a full appreciation for the size of the readiness hole, how deep it was, and how wide it was. It’s pretty amazing…You have a thoroughbred horse in the stable that you’re running in a race every single day. You cannot do that. Something’s going to happen eventually.” –Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer

Gaps in forward naval presence could become the new normal and not just as a result of lacking readiness discipline. Rather, it may be the product of the Navy and the Department of Defense finally coming to terms with the limits of what can be done with a much smaller fleet. Reconciling with this truth could mark a major strategic shift in how the U.S. envisions using its Navy for war and deterrence.

In spite of increasing demand signals and widespread fluctuations across the Navy’s workup cycles one key thing remained consistent. For at least the past 25 years the Navy steadily deployed around 100 ships per year for about six months at a time. The Navy tried to maintain this deployment rate despite the fact the fleet shrunk by over 40 percent in the same timeframe. 

Graphic depicting relationship between fleet size, deployment length, and deployment rate. (Source: Department of the Navy FY 2018 President’s Budget Press Brief)

Fleet size helps dictate what deployment levels can be sustained. In order to maintain round-the-clock presence in a distant part of the world around four ships are needed for every one kept forward.17 This comes from how the deployment phase is about a quarter of the time within the workup cycle under the FRP or the OFRP. Forward-deployed naval forces such as those homeported in Japan are far more efficient by being based in theater, but forward-based units are a small minority of the force. Rotational crewing can also increase availability, but this also applies to a minority of the force and no large surface combatants or flattop capital ships operate under this scheme. Four ships for every one forward translates into something quite larger than the 280-ship fleet that exists today if the Navy wishes to keep deploying 100 ships per year for six months at a time.

The Navy was able to maintain constant presence in certain parts of the world through this deployment rate. The strategic argument for presence had long been a driving force behind the power projection focus, and where it was widely reported in 2015 that a carrier presence gap emerged in the Middle East for the first time in eight years.18 Guaranteeing constant presence was used to justify crushing deployment rates for years. Perhaps this is why it was so difficult to break away from deploying 100 ships per year on six-month deployments. Dropping below this rate could normalize presence gaps in certain areas, thereby triggering a major strategic revision of how the fleet could be used in key parts of the world.

Gaps in presence are poised to become more frequent in any case. It is not that the Fleet Response Plan itself was a failure, but that the strategy it tried to serve became highly unrealistic for a shrinking Navy. Recent experience proves the Navy will wreck itself if it tries to continue deploying around 100 ships per year for over six months at a time. Therefore this deployment rate may actually represent a supply-based ceiling that was set many years ago by a much larger fleet, instead of a true demand-based model. Despite the fact that demand for naval power substantially increased throughout the power projection era the number of ships being deployed held steady. 

However, what was once a supply-based limit may have morphed into demand-based pressure as the shrinking fleet became more stretched and strained. Maintenance troubles became severe enough to induce presence gaps in this deployment rate despite the Navy’s vigorous efforts to improvise timelines to prevent those gaps from happening. Somewhere along the way the fleet shrunk so much that eventually predictable presence could not come without predictable maintenance, putting the Navy at a tipping point. 

A map providing an idea of the forward presence maintained by U.S. Navy forces. (Source: Department of the Navy FY 2018 President’s Budget Press Brief. Click to expand.)

The Navy’s latest deploying construct, known as Dynamic Force Employment, was implemented this year. One of its main features appears to include regular three-month deployments, which are half as short as the deployments of the past 30 years. By bringing units home much earlier the Navy won’t spend most of a ship’s readiness in a single stretch and in a forward area. This will conserve enough readiness to allow ships to more confidently deploy again if need be instead of possibly reusing tired ships and crews coming off long deployments. This will then create greater overlap in the employability of the Navy’s ships, allowing the fleet to better surge in larger formations. Ships can also use that extra time to get caught up on maintenance, conduct force development operations near home, or be better primed to surge. Perhaps Dynamic Force Employment is the break the Navy finally needed.

This operating concept could also represent a major shift in how the nation envisions using the Navy for winning and preventing wars. A major strategic justification for emphasizing continuous forward presence was the concept of deterrence by denial. By steadily maintaining naval forces in forward areas the Navy would shut down threatening ambitions by ruling out an adversary’s options for sudden strikes and quick, fait accompli victories. Forward presence also allows ships to frequently engage in foreign partnership operations and security cooperation. These operations can build constructive relationships, enhance partners’ skills in providing for their own security, and shape regions toward a more positive outlook of the U.S.19

Gaps in presence can change the strategic calculus of military options and deterrence. With gaps the Navy would not be as able to prevent sudden hostile actions or victories, but instead it could be reactively deployed to punish adversaries, roll back their gains, and prevent consolidation. This concept is strongly reinforced by shifting to an operating posture that emphasizes surging forces from home instead of continuously maintaining them abroad for presence. Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested this significant shift behind Dynamic Force Employment:

“They’ll be home at the end of a 90-day deployment. They will not have spent eight months at sea, and we are going to have a force more ready to surge and deal with the high-end warfare as a result…You can bank readiness by decreasing forward presence – that is, if you have fewer forces forward deployed…you have more to push forward when you want them. In other words, it’s punishment rather than deterrence — you surge after the enemy has made its move.”20

This suggests deterrence by denial through steady presence has been deemphasized in favor of responding to hostile action through reactively surged force.

Deploying ships for only three months at a time under this latest construct will dramatically lower presence even further. Dynamic Force Employment may therefore signal the removal of forward naval presence from an overriding position in national security strategy. This year the Navy has gone about six months without operating a carrier group deep in Middle Eastern waters, and with little fanfare compared to the previously mentioned two-month presence gap in 2015.21 Under this new construct presence gaps could have been made much more acceptable, and especially for the sake of improving surge capacity.


A tracker displaying Navy deployments over a six-month period. Note the absence of a carrier strike group operating deep in Middle Eastern waters for almost all of the time period. (Types of major ship formations: ARG = Amphibious Ready Group, ESG = Expeditionary Strike Group, CSG= Carrier Strike Group. ARGs and ESGs are centered on an amphibious assault ship as the primary capital ship of the formation. Formations here are named after their main capital ship. Tracker source: U.S. Naval Institute News Fleet Tracker, sponsored by the Center for Naval Analyses)

This could be a major pivot in the Navy’s posture toward great power competition and away from power projection. It could also be the long overdue acceptance of the strategic downgrade in presence that occurs when the Navy of a geographically isolated superpower shrinks to half its size in a span of 15 years.22 For American naval supremacy it could mark the end of an era, or a new beginning.

Surge Capacity and Strategic Credibility

“I had always supposed that the subdivision in time of peace of a nation’s fighting units into numerous independent squadrons was due more to personal reasons than to a consideration of the principles of naval training and strategy—which latter seems to be more correctly illustrated by the rapid concentration that takes place when war is imminent…where the command of the sea is involved, a nation is not deterred from going to war by the state of dispersion of a rival nation’s battleships, but by the knowledge that he has a certain number…and that they have been continuously trained to a high degree of individual and fleet efficiency by concentration in one or more large fleets.” – Lieutenant Commander William Sims, 1906.

The damage done by years of excessive deployment rates has already degraded the Navy’s credibility. Regardless of any demand for presence maintaining latent surge capacity has always been one of the most vital national security requirements for a superpower. It gives the nation the flexibility it needs to effectively respond to major contingencies. War plans must be underpinned by realistic understandings of surge capacity to know how much force can be brought to bear in those crucial first weeks and months of a major war. 

Significant declines in surge capacity can force revisions to war plans, and where a diminished ability to surge the fleet can increase strategic risk if the Navy cannot respond as well to major events. This makes the state of the fleet’s maintenance and material condition a major limiting factor of strategic consequence because these variables largely determine the Navy’s ability to surge its forces on short notice.

If the Navy has to suddenly surge in large numbers it will have to make difficult decisions on which ships it will bring forward and which ships it will leave behind. Major contingencies could easily force the Navy to pull forces from beyond those that are in the “employable” windows of the workup cycle. At any given moment many ships are undergoing deep maintenance and complex upgrades which makes it more difficult to deploy them on short notice. The deeper and more troubled the maintenance work of a ship the harder it will be to surge it with confidence. In the aftermath of last year’s fatal collisions the Navy’s “can-do” culture was cited as a major factor in normalizing excessive risk by deploying ships in worsening condition for years. But how “can-do” will the Navy be when it really has to surge for a major crisis?23

The viability of a readiness cycle can be measured by its ability to preserve a given amount of surge capacity against the wear-and-tear of regular operations. This is how a supply-based model can drive its discipline. Maintaining ships and aircraft in a good state and knowing how to firmly control their maintenance needs is central toward preserving surge capacity and understanding material limits. But a demand-based model and its inherently unstable nature will eat away at that supply and make maintenance less predictable. Navy leadership testified before Congress on the nature of the demand-based model and the mounting strategic liabilities it was incurring:

“…we continue to consume our contingency surge capacity for routine operations. It will be more challenging to meet Defense Strategic Guidance objectives of the future. Ultimately, this is a ‘pay me now or pay me later’ discussion.”24

Exactly how much surge capacity has the Navy sacrificed? Navy leaders testified that a major goal of OFRP was to “restore” the Navy to a three-carrier level of surge capacity.25 This is half the six-plus-two construct that was the goal of the Fleet Response Plan, suggesting a staggering loss of over half the Navy’s surge capacity within about ten years. But perhaps the Navy just overestimated itself. When the GAO suggested in 1993 that a 12-carrier force could surge seven battle groups within 30 days the Navy wrote the idea off as an “overly optimistic picture of carrier battle group surge capability.”26 Yet the goal of the Fleet Response Plan was not much different.

The U.S. is heavily disadvantaged by geography when it comes to military responses in that it must cross large oceans to surge to the front. Great power competitors such as Russia and China can easily enjoy steep advantages in time, space, and numbers because major contingencies are more likely to break out in their front yard. By operating so much closer to home great power competitors will have a vastly superior ability to surge at the start of sudden war. By comparison the U.S. will have relatively few forward forces, will have to surge across great distances, and may have to heavily rely on regional allies where many are easily overmatched by Russia or China. The deterrent value of forward forces and certain allies could make them more of a tripwire instead of a roadblock.

Surging is vital to winning the high-end fight because of its especially intense character. War at sea in particular has always been fairly deterministic when it comes to firepower overmatch because of the concentrated nature of naval capability. This trend is greatly magnified in the missile age where now only one hit can easily be enough to put a ship out of action, meaning a very small advantage in firepower can quickly snowball into decisive effects. This is especially true when modern war at sea can consist of forces unleashing dozens if not hundreds of missiles at one another’s ships within minutes. High-end naval combat could easily witness extreme amounts of rapid overkill if warship defenses fail to keep up even slightly. As Wayne Hughes the renowned thinker on naval tactics describes it, “It is demonstrable both by history and theory that not only has a small net advantage in force…often been decisive in naval battles, but the slightly inferior force tends to lose with very little to show…when committed in battle, the heart of a fleet can be cut out in an afternoon.”27

A fleet that is even slightly outgunned can easily lose. This makes the ability to powerfully surge foundational to success. By swallowing surge capacity to feed forward presence the Navy’s ability to win great power war has been degraded in a most critical way. A Navy that is serious about its credibility for the high-end fight will vigorously defend its material readiness for the sake of surge capacity.

Instead, the power projection Navy compromised its discipline. It lowered key readiness standards, set extreme surge requirements, and made lengthy deployments that were once considered rare the new normal.28 Pursuing more presence in forward areas and having more surge capacity from home are two opposite ambitions for orienting readiness. The Navy tried to do both, and with a shrinking fleet.

The Navy is now less sure of its own limits after having long exceeded them. If a pressing contingency breaks out tomorrow could the Navy effectively surge and then quickly rebound? Could the Navy surge enough ships to arrest a short sharp war by China, such as in a Taiwan scenario? After pushing too hard for too long the U.S. Navy finds itself tired, unbalanced, and less sure if it has either the forward presence or the surge capacity to stop great power war in its tracks.

Part 6 will focus on Strategy and Operations.

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


1. Megan Eckstein, “U.S. Fleet Forces: New Deployment Plan Designed to Create Sustainable Naval Force,” U.S. Naval Institute News, January 20, 2016. https://news.usni.org/2016/01/19/u-s-fleet-forces-new-deployment-plan-designed-to-create-sustainable-naval-force

Excerpt: “We’re trying to get four things out of OFRP: we’ve got to have a schedule that’s capable of rotating the force, meaning sending it on deployment; surging that force in case we have to go to war; maintain and modernize that force so that we can get it to the end of its service life; and then if you had to go to war or if you had some other catastrophe, be able to reset the whole thing in stride, which the previous iteration didn’t have that capability…”

2. Naval Transformation Roadmap 2003, Assured Access & Power Projection From the Sea… http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/navy/naval_trans_roadmap2003.pdf

3. For scale of recent surge deployments see:

Roland J. Yardley et. al, “Impacts of the Fleet
Response Plan on Surface Combatant Maintenance,” RAND, 2006. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2006/RAND_TR358.pdf 

Excerpt: “Operation Iraqi Freedom featured the largest naval deployment in recent history, with more than 70 percent of U.S. surface ships and 50 percent of U.S. submarines underway, including seven CSGs, three amphibious readiness groups, two amphibious task forces, and more than 77,000 sailors participating…”

Benjamin S. Lambeth, “American Carrier Air Power  at the Dawn of a
New Century,” RAND, 2005. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG404.pdf 


“As the Iraqi Freedom air war neared, the Navy had eight carrier battle groups and air wings deployed worldwide, including USS Carl Vinson and her embarked CVW-9 in the Western Pacific covering North Korea and China during the final countdown. Five of those eight battle groups and air wings had participated in Operation Enduring Freedom just a year before. With five carrier battle groups on station and committed to the impending war, a sixth en route to CENTCOM’s AOR as a timely replacement for one of those five, a seventh also forward deployed and holding in ready reserve, and yet an eighth carrier at sea and ready to go, 80 percent of the Navy’s carrier-based striking power was poised and available for immediate tasking. During the cold war years, having eight out of 12 carriers and ten air wings deployed at sea and combat-ready at the same time would have been all but out of the question.”

For Summer Pulse see: 

“Summer Pulse 2004,” All Hands Magazine, September 2004. https://www.navy.mil/ah_online/archpdf/ah200409.pdf 

Caveat offered by GAO:  “Summer Pulse 2004 was not a realistic test because all participating units had several months’ warning of the event. As a result, five carriers were already scheduled to be at sea and only two had to surge. Because six ships are expected to be ready to deploy with as little as 30 days’ notice under the plan and two additional carriers within 90 days, a more realistic test of the Fleet Response Plan would include no-notice or short-notice exercises.”

4. General Accounting Office, “Cost-Effectiveness of Conventionally and Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carriers,” August 1998. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GAOREPORTS-NSIAD-98-1/pdf/GAOREPORTS-NSIAD-98-1.pdf 

5. Heidi L.W. Golding, Henry S. Griffis, “How Has PERSTEMPO’s Effect on Reenlistments Changed Since the 1986 Navy Policy?” Center for Naval Analyses, July 2004. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1014531.pdf 

For “inviolate” reference: Raymond F. Keledei, “Naval Forward Presence,” Naval War College student thesis, October 23, 2006. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a463587.pdf

6. Raymond F. Keledei, “Naval Forward Presence,” Naval War College student thesis, October 23, 2006. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a463587.pdf

7. Admiral Bill Gortney and Admiral Harry Harris, USN, “Applied Readiness,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2014. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-10/applied-readiness

8. Megan Eckstein, “USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Repair Period Triples in Legnth; Carrier Will be in Yard Until 2019,” U.S. Naval Institute News, September 24, 2018. https://news.usni.org/2018/09/24/eisenhower-carrier-maintenance-will-last-2019-tripling-length-expected-6-month-availability

9. For increase in Combatant Commander demand see:

Naval Operations Concept 2010. https://fas.org/irp/doddir/navy/noc2010.pdf

Excerpt: “Since 2007 the combatant commanders’
cumulative requests for naval forces have grown 29 percent for
CSGs, 76 percent for surface combatants, 86 percent for ARG/MEUs, and
53 percent for individually deployed amphibious ships.”

Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, USN (ret.), “It’s Not Just the Forward Deployed,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 2018.  https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-04/its-not-just-forward-deployed


“Between 2015 and 2017, naval operations in the Indo-Asia Pacific expanded dramatically both in direct response to national priorities and to ComPacFlt and Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (USPaCom). As a consequence of the increasing demand for and decreasing availability of C7F assets, readiness declined in CruDes forces. This was known both to commanders in FDNF and across the Navy. The GAO had reported to the Navy in 2015 that resources were not keeping pace with demand. Through 2016 and culminating in early 2017, my staff produced detailed data quantifying the increase in CruDes operational tasking and demonstrating the consequent decline in executed maintenance and training, which I sent directly to ComPacFlt. ComPacFlt agreed operational tasking threatened FDNF surface maintenance and training. Yet C7F received no substantive relief from tasking or additional resources.”

For increase in equipment casualty reports see: Government Accountability Office, “Navy Force Structure: Sustainable Plan and Comprehensive Assessment Needed to Mitigate Long-Term Risks to Ships Assigned to Overseas Homeports,” May 2015. https://www.gao.gov/assets/680/670534.pdf#page=2

10. Admiral Bill Gortney and Admiral Harry Harris, USN, “Applied Readiness,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2014. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-10/applied-readiness

11. Captain Dale Rielage, USN, “How We Lost the Great Pacific War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2018. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-05/how-we-lost-great-pacific-war 

Excerpt: “…we created a sustainment phase in the OFRP. This phase was designed to ensure that readiness did not “bathtub.” Each deployment cycle was envisioned to build on the previous iteration, ultimately creating the varsity-level performance the challenge demanded. The sustainment phase was also where we planned to keep surge forces, but it was never resourced. Ten years ago, the director of fleet maintenance for U.S. Fleet Forces referred to it publicly as a “sustainment opportunity” because there was no funding associated with it. The years of continuing resolutions, Budget Control Act restrictions, and maintenance deficits left the sustainment phase a shell of a concept.”

Megan Eckstein, “Navy Proves High Readiness Levels During Carrier’s Sustainment Phase Leads to Maintenance Savings Later,” U.S. Naval Institute News, August 3, 2017. https://news.usni.org/2017/08/03/navy-proves-high-readiness-levels-carriers-sustainment-phase-leads-maintenance-savings-later 

Excerpt: Of course this high level of readiness had an upfront cost. [Admiral] Lindsey praised U.S. Fleet Forces Command commander Adm. Phil Davidson and his staff for the “maneuvers” it took to keep Eisenhower funded during the sustainment phase, saying “I never wanted for money that I needed to keep them at that high level. … That’s a testament to Adm. Davidson and his staff, his comptroller and everything.”

12. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Proves High Readiness Levels During Carrier’s Sustainment Phase Leads to Maintenance Savings Later,” U.S. Naval Institute News, August 3, 2017. https://news.usni.org/2017/08/03/navy-proves-high-readiness-levels-carriers-sustainment-phase-leads-maintenance-savings-later 

13. Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, “COMUSFLTFORCOM/COMPACFLT INSTRUCTION 3000.15A, Subject: Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” December 8, 2014. http://www.sabrewebhosting.com/elearning/supportfiles/pdfs/USFFC_CPF%20INST%203000_15A%20OFRP.pdf 

14. “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, September 10, 2015. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-114hhrg96239/pdf/CHRG-114hhrg96239.pdf

15.  “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, September 10, 2015. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-114hhrg96239/pdf/CHRG-114hhrg96239.pdf

Rear Admiral Bruce Lindsey and Lieutenant Commander Heather Quilenderino, “Operationalizing Optimized Fleet Response Plan – SITREP #1,” March 5, 2016. https://blog.usni.org/posts/2016/03/05/operationalizing-optimized-fleet-response-plan-sitrep-1

David Larter, “New Deployment Plan Faces Hurdles, Official Warns,” Navy Times, September 11, 2015. https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2015/09/11/new-deployment-plan-faces-hurdles-official-warns/

16. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Will Extend All DDGs to a 45-Year Service Life; ‘No Destroyer Left Behind’ Officials Say,” U.S. Naval Institute News, April 12, 2018. https://news.usni.org/2018/04/12/navy-will-extend-ddgs-45-year-service-life-no-destroyer-left-behind-officials-say 

17. Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman, Deploying Beyond Their Means: America’s Navy and Marine Corps at a Tipping Point, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, November 2015. https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/CSBA6174_(Deploying_Beyond_Their_Means)Final2-web.pdf

18. The story of the late 2015 carrier gap was picked up by outlets including Business Insider, U.S. Naval Institute News, CNN, Navy Times, Fox News, and Stars and Stripes.

19. For nature and benefits of forward presence operations see Navy strategy document: A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, 2015. https://www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf

For nature of deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment see: Michael Gerson and Daniel Whiteneck, Deterrence and Influence: The Navy’s Role in Preventing War, Center for Naval Analyses, March 2009. https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/D0019315.A4.pdf 

20. David Larter, “Is Secretary of Defense Mattis planning radical changes to how the Navy deploys?” Navy Times, May 2, 2018. https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2018/05/02/is-secretary-of-defense-mattis-planning-radical-changes-to-how-the-navy-deploys/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ebb%2003.05.18&utm_term=Editorial%20-%20Early%20Bird%20Brief

21. Sam LaGrone, “U.S. Aircraft Carrier Deployments at 25 Year Low as Navy Struggles to Reset Force,” U.S. Naval Institute News, September 26, 2018. https://news.usni.org/2018/09/26/aircraft-carrier-deployments-25-year-low

Caveat: In the time period covered the Harry Truman strike group conducted operations in the Middle East but from the Eastern Mediterranean and not for the full duration of its deployment. Hence the distinction of describing naval presence as “deep” in Middle Eastern Waters, where typically carrier groups were deployed and maintained in the immediate vicinity of the Persian Gulf.

22. For U.S. Navy fleet size and ship counts see: US Ship Force Levels, 1886-Present, U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/us-ship-force-levels.html#1986 

To explain the difference between this point with the earlier comment on 40 percent shrinkage across 25 years, the Navy shrunk by half from 1990 to 2005, and where fleet size stabilized in the range of 270-280 ships around 2005. Open source data on deployment rates (as a defined by number of ships deployed per year) in the early 1990s was not immediately findable. However, in the early 1990s such as from 1990-1993 the fleet would drop in size by over 100 ships.

23. Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents, October 2017. https://s3.amazonaws.com/CHINFO/Comprehensive+Review_Final.pdf 

24.  “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, September 10, 2015. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-114hhrg96239/pdf/CHRG-114hhrg96239.pdf

25. “Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, September 10, 2015. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-114hhrg96239/pdf/CHRG-114hhrg96239.pdf

See Also: “Aircraft Carrier – Presence and Surge Limitations and Expanding Power Projection Options,” Joint Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces Meeting Jointly With Subcommittee on Readiness of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, 114th Congress, November 3, 2015. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-114hhrg97498/pdf/CHRG-114hhrg97498.pdf

26. General Accounting Office, “Navy Carrier Battle Groups: The Structure and
Affordability of the Future Force,” February 1993. 

27. Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN, “Naval Tactics and Their Influence on Strategy,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Volume 39, Number 1, Winter, 1986. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://cimsec.org/?p=37359&preview=true&httpsredir=1&article=4426&context=nwc-review 

28. For reduced readiness standards see review conducted in aftermath of fatal 2017 collisions: Strategic Readiness Review 2017, http://s3.amazonaws.com/CHINFO/SRR+Final+12112017.pdf

Featured Image: Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Wash. (Aug. 14, 2003) USS Ohio (SSGN 726) is in dry dock undergoing a conversion from a Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN) to a Guided Missile Submarine (SSGN). (U.S. Navy file photo)

The Navy’s New Fleet Problem Experiments and Stunning Revelations of Military Failure

By Dmitry Filipoff

Losing the Warrior Ethos

“…despite the best efforts of our training teams, our deploying forces were not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.” –Admiral Scott Swift 1

Today, virtually every captain in the U.S. Navy has spent most of his or her career in the post-Cold War era where high-end warfighting skills were de-emphasized. After the Soviet Union fell, there was no navy that could plausibly contest control of the open ocean against the U.S. In taking stock of this new strategic environment, the Navy announced in the major strategy concept document …From the Sea (1992) achange in focus and, therefore, in priorities for the Naval Service away from operations on the sea toward power projection.”2 This change in focus was toward missions that made the Navy more relevant in campaigns against lower-end threats such as insurgent groups and rogue nations (Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya) that were the new focus of national security imperatives. None of these competitors fielded modern navies.

The relatively simplistic missions the U.S. Navy conducted in this power projection era included striking inland targets with missile strikes and airpower, presence through patrolling in forward areas, and security cooperation through partner development engagements. The focus on this skillset has led to an era of complacence where the high-end warfighting skills that were de-emphasized actually atrophied to a significant degree. This possibility was forewarned in another Navy strategy document that sharpened thinking on adapting for a power projection era, Forward…from the Sea (1994): “As we continue to improve our readiness to project power in the littorals, we need to proceed cautiously so as not to jeopardize our readiness for the full spectrum of missions and functions for which we are responsible.”3

Now the strategic environment has changed decisively. Most notably, China is aggressively rising, challenging international norms, and rapidly building a large, modern navy. Because of the predominantly maritime nature of the Pacific theater, the U.S. Navy may prove the most important military service for deterring and winning a major war against this ascendant and destabilizing superpower. If things get to the point where offensive sea control operations are needed and the fleet is gambled in high-end combat, then it is very likely that the associated geopolitical stakes of victory or defeat will be historic. The sudden rise of a powerful maritime rival is coinciding with the atrophy of high-end warfighting skills and the introduction of exceedingly complex technologies, making the recent stunning revelations about how the U.S. Navy has failed to prepare for great power war especially chilling.

Admiral Scott Swift, who leads U.S. Pacific Fleet (the U.S. Navy’s largest and most prioritized operational command), candidly revealed that the Navy was not realistically practicing high-end warfighting skills and operations, including sinking modern enemy fleets, until only two years ago. Ships were not practicing against other ships in the realistic, free-play environments necessary to train and refine tactics and doctrine to win in great power war.

In a recent U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, Admiral Swift detailed training and experimentation events occurring in a series of “Fleet Problems.” These events take their name and inspiration from a years-long series of interwar-period fleet experiments and exercises that profoundly influenced how the Navy transformed itself in the run-up to World War Two. While ships practiced against ships in the inter-war period Fleet Problems, the modern version began with the creation of a specialized “Red” team well-versed in wargaming concepts and competitor thinking born from intelligence insights. This Red team is pitched against the Navy’s frontline commanders in Fleet Problem scenarios that simulate high-end warfare through the command of actual warships. What makes their creation an admission of grave institutional failure is that this Red team is leading the first series of realistic high-threat training events at sea in recent memory.

The Navy’s units should be able to practice high-end warfighting skills against one another without the required participation of a highly-specialized Red team adversary to present a meaningful challenge. But Adm. Swift strikingly admits that the Navy’s current system of certifying warfighting skills is not representative of real high-end capability because the Navy “never practiced them together, in combination with multiple tasks, against a free-playing, informed, and representative Red.” Furthermore, “individual commanders rarely if ever [emphasis added] had the opportunity to exercise all these complex operations against a dynamic and thoughtful adversary.”

Core understanding on what makes training realistic and meaningful was absent. Warfighting truths were not being discovered and necessary skills were not being practiced because ships were not facing off against other ships in high-end threat scenarios to test their abilities under realistic conditions. If the nation sent the Navy to fight great power war tomorrow, it would amount to a coach sending a team that “rarely if ever” did practice games to a championship match.

These exercises are not just experiments that push the limits of what is known about modern war at sea. They are also experimental in that they are now figuring out if the U.S. Navy can even do what it has said it could do, including the ability to sink enemy fleets and establish sea control. According to Adm. Swift, the Navy had “never performed” a “critical operational tactic that is used routinely in exercises and assumed to be executable by the fleet [emphasis added]” until it was recently tested in a Fleet Problem. The unsurprising insight: “having never performed the task together at sea, the disconnect” between what the Navy thought it could perform and what it could actually do “never was identified clearly.” Adm. Swift concludes “It was not until we tried to execute under realistic, true free-play conditions that we discovered the problem’s causal factors…” In the Fleet Problems training and experimentation have become one and the same.

Why did the Navy assume it could confidently execute critical operational tactics it had never actually tried in the first place? And if the Navy assumed it could do it, then maybe the rest of the defense establishment and other nations thought so, too. Does this profound disconnect also hold true for foreign and allied navies? Is the unique tactical and doctrinal knowledge being represented by the specialized Red team an admission that competitors are training their units and validating their warfighting concepts through more realistic practice? Even though it is impossible to truly simulate all the chaos of real combat, only now are important ground truths of high-end naval warfare just being discovered which could prompt major reassessments of what the Navy can really contribute in great power war.

The entirety of the train, man, and equip enterprise that produces ready military forces for deployment must be built upon a coherent vision of how real war works. The advent of the Fleet Problems suggests that if one were to ask the Navy’s unit leaders what their real-world vision is of how to fight modern enemy warships as part of a distributed and networked force their responses would have little in common. If great power war breaks out tomorrow, the Navy’s frontline commanders could be forced to improvise warfighting fundamentals from the very beginning. Simple lessons would be learned at great cost in blood and treasure.

Many of the major revelations coming from the Fleet Problems are not unique innovations, but rather symptoms of deep neglect for a core element of preparing for war – pitting real-life units against one another to test people, ideas, and technology under realistic conditions. Adm. Swift surprisingly describes using a Red team to  connect intelligence insights, wargaming concepts, training, and real-life experimentation as “new ground.” Swift also noted that as the Navy attempted its purported concepts of operations in the Fleet Problems “it became apparent there were warfighting tasks that were critical to success that we could not execute with confidence.” In a normal context, it would not always be noteworthy for a military to invalidate concepts or realize it can’t do something well. What makes these statements revelations is that the process of testing concepts and people in realistic conditions simulating great power war has only just begun. 

This is a failure with profound implications. The insight that comes from training and experimenting against realistic threats forms a critical foundation for the rest of the military enterprise. Realistic experimentation and training is indispensable for developing meaningful doctrine, tactics, and operational art. Much of the advanced concept development on great power war by the Navy hasn’t been validated by real-world testing. The creation of the new Fleet Problems is fundamentally an admission that not only is the Navy unsure of its ability to execute core missions, but that major decisions about its future development were built on flaws. While the Fleet Problems are finally injecting much needed realism into the Navy’s thinking, their creation reveals that the entire defense establishment has suffered a major disconnect from the real character of modern naval warfare. The Fleet Problems have likely invalidated years of planning and numerous basic assumptions.

The Navy must now account for how many years it did not practice its forces in meaningful, high-end threat training in order to understand just how widespread this lack of realistic experience has penetrated its ranks. There should be no doubt that this has skewed decision-making at senior levels of leadership. How many leaders making important decisions about capability development, training, and requirements have zero firsthand experience commanding forces in high-end threat training? Could the fleet commanders operate networked and distributed formations if war breaks out? Has best military advice on the value of naval power for the nation’s national security interests been predicated on untested warfighting assumptions?

To Train the Fleet for What?

“The department directs that a board of officers, qualified by experience, be ordered to prepare a manual of torpedo tactics which will be submitted by the department to the War College, and after such discussion and revision as may be necessary, will be printed and issued to the torpedo officers of the service for trial. This order has not been complied with. If it had been, it would doubtless have resulted in a sort of tentative doctrine which, though it might well have been better than the flotilla’s first attempt, could not have been as complete or as reliable as one developed through progressive trials at sea; and it might well have contained very dangerous mistakes.”William S. Sims 4

Adm. Swift reveals that it was even debated whether free-play elements should play a role at all in certifying units to be combat ready: “there was concern in some circles that adding free-play elements to the limited time in the training schedule would come at the cost of unit certification. Others contended it was unrealistic and unfair to ask units that were not yet certified to perform our most difficult warfighting tasks.” The degree of certification is moot. Sailors are failing anyway because the shift in warfighting focus toward great power competition has not been matched by new training standards and therefore not penetrated down to the unit level.

Adm. Swift notes startling lessons: “In some scenarios, we learned that the ‘by the book’ procedure can place a strike group at risk simply because our standard operating procedures were written without considering a high-end wartime environment.” This is a direct result of the change in focus toward power projection missions against threats without modern navies. According to Adm. Swift the regular exercise schedule consisted of missions including “maritime interdiction operations, strait transits, and air wings focused on power projection from sanctuary” which meant that forces were “not preparing for the high-end maritime fight and, ultimately, the U.S. Navy’s core mission of sea control.” In this new context of a high-end fight in a Fleet Problem, according to Adm. Swift, “If we presented an accurate—which is to say hard—problem, there was a high probability the forces involved were going to fail. In our regular training events, that simply does not happen at the rate we assess will occur in war.” The Fleet Problems are revealing that Navy units are not able to confidently execute high-end warfighting operations regardless of the state of their training certifications. 

These revelations demonstrate that the way the Navy certifies its units as ready for war is broken. A profound disconnect exists between the Navy’s certification and training processes for various warfighting skills and what is actually required in war. Entire sets of training certifications and standard operating procedures born of the post-Cold War era are inadequate for gauging the Navy’s ability to fight great power conflict.

Mentally Absent in the Midst of the Largest Technological Revolution

“The American navy in particular has been fascinated with hardware, esteems technical competence, and is prone to solve its tactical deficiencies with engineering improvements. Indeed, there are officers in peacetime who regard the official statement of a requirement for a new piece of hardware as the end of their responsibility in correcting a current operational deficiency. This is a trap.” Capt. Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. (Ret.) 5

Regardless of a major shift in national security priorities toward lower-end threats, the astonishing pace of technological change constitutes an extremely volatile factor in the strategic environment that needs to be constantly paced by realistic training and experimentation under free-play conditions. The modern technological foundation upon which to devise tactics and doctrine is built on sand.

The advent of the information age has unlocked an unprecedented degree of flexibility for the conduct of naval warfare as platforms and payloads can be connected in real-time in numerous ways across great distances. This has resulted in a military-technical revolution as marked as when iron and steam combined to overtake wooden ships of sail. A single modern destroyer fully loaded with network-enabled anti-ship missiles has enough firepower to singlehandedly sink the entirety of the U.S. Navy’s WWII battleship and fleet carrier force.6 On the flipside, another modern destroyer could field the defensive capability to stop that same missile salvo.

Warfighting fundamentals are being reappraised in an information-focused context. The process by which forces find, target, and engage their opponents, known as the kill chain, is enabled by information at each individual step of the sequence. A key obstacle is meeting that burden of information in order to advance to the next step. This challenge is exacerbated by the great distances of open-ocean warfare and the difficulty of getting timely information to where it needs to be while the adversary seeks to deceive and degrade the network. Technological advancement means the kill chain’s information burdens can be increasingly met and interfered with.

The threshold of information needed for the archer to shoot decreases the smarter the arrow gets. Information-age advancements have therefore wildly increased the power of the most destructive conventional weapon ever put to sea, the autonomous salvo of swarming anti-ship missiles.

The next iteration of these missiles will have a robust suite of onboard sensors, datalinks, jamming capability, and artificial intelligence. These capabilities will combine to build resilience into the kill chain by containing as much of that process as possible within the missile itself. More and more of the need for the most up-to-date information will be met by the missile swarm’s own sensors and decided upon by its artificial intelligence. Once fired, these missiles are on a one-way trip, allowing them to discard survivability for the sake of seizing more opportunities to collect and pass information. Unlike most other information-gaining assets, these missiles will be able to close with potential targets to resolve lingering concerns of deception and identification. The missile’s infrared and electro-optical capabilities in particular will provide undetectable, jam-resistant sensors for final identification that will prove challenging to deceive with countermeasures. On final approach, the missile will pick a precise point on the ship to guarantee a kill, such as where ammunition is stored. 

The most fierce enemy in naval warfare has taken the form of autonomous networked missile salvos where the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) decision cycle will be transpiring within the swarm at machine speeds. Is the Navy ready to use and defend against these decisive weapons?

The Navy may feel inclined to say yes to the latter question sooner because shooting things out of the sky has been a special focus of the Surface Navy and naval aviation since WWII. The latest technology that will take this capability into the 21st century, the Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter-Air (NIFC-CA) networking capability, will help unite the sensors and weapons of the Navy’s ships and aircraft. Aircraft will be able to use a warship’s missiles to shoot down threats the ship can’t see itself. This is decisive because anti-ship missiles will make their final approach at low altitudes below the horizon where they can’t be detected by a ship’s radar. Modern warships can be forced to wait until the final seconds to bring most of their defensive firepower to bear on a supersonic inbound missile salvo unless a networked aircraft can cue their fires with accurate sensor information from high above.

This makes mastering NIFC-CA perhaps the most important defensive capability the fleet needs to train for, but this will involve a steep learning curve. Speaking on the challenges of making this capability a reality, then-Captain Jim Kilby remarked that it involves “a level of coordination we’ve never had to execute before and a level of integration between aircrews and ship crews.”Is the Navy truly practicing and refining this capability in realistic environments? At least three years before the Fleet Problems started, the Chief of Naval Operations reported that concepts of operation were established for NIFC-CA.8

There should be little confidence that naval forces have a deep comprehension of how information has revolutionized naval warfare and how modern fleet combat will play out because there was a lapse in necessary realistic experimentation at sea. The way the Navy thought it would operate may not actually make sense in war, a key insight that experimentation will reveal as it did in the interwar period.

Training and Experimentation for Now and Tomorrow

If…the present system fails to anticipate and to adequately provide for the conditions to be expected during hostilities of such nature, it is obviously imperative that it be modified; wholly regardless of the effect of such change upon administration or upon the outcome of any peace activity whatsoever.” –Dudley W. Knox 9

The extent to which the Navy’s current capabilities have been tested by meaningful real-world training and experimentation is now in doubt. This doubt naturally extends to things that the Navy has just fielded or is about to introduce to the fleet. Yet Adm. Swift revealed a fatal flaw in the Fleet Problems that is not in keeping with a high-velocity learning or warfighting-first mindset: “We are not notionally employing systems and weapons that are not already deployed in the fleet. Each unit attacks the problem using what it has on hand (physically and intellectually) today.”

It is a mistake to not train forces to use future weapons. Units must absolutely attempt to experiment with capabilities not yet in the fleet to stay ahead of the ever-quickening pace of change. Realism should be occasionally sacrificed to anticipate the basic parameters of capabilities that are about to be fielded. Sailors should be thinking about how to employ advanced anti-ship missiles about to hit the fleet that feature hundreds of miles of range like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), Standard Missile 6, and the Maritime Strike Tomahawk. These capabilities are far more versatile than the Navy’s only current ship-to-ship missile, the very short-range and antiquated Harpoon missile the Navy first fielded over 40 years ago and can’t even carry in its launch cells. Getting sailors to think about weapons before their introduction will mentally prepare them for new capabilities and warfighting realities.

Information-enabled capabilities have come to dominate every facet of offense, defense, and decision. Do naval aviators know how to retarget friendly salvos of networked missiles amidst a mass of deception and defensive counter-air capabilities while leveraging warship capabilities to target enemy missile salvos simultaneously? Do fleet commanders know how to maneuver numerous aerial network nodes to fuse sensors and establish flows of critical information that react to emerging threats and opportunities? Can commanders effectively manage and verify enormous amounts of information while the defense establishment and industrial base are being aggressively hacked by a great power? According to the Navy’s current service strategy document, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, warfare concept development should involve efforts to…re-align Navy training, tactics development, operational support, and assessments with our warfare mission areas to mirror how we currently organize to fight.” 10

Despite all the enormous effort and long wait times that accompany the introduction of a new system, the Fleet Problems remind the defense establishment that the Navy can’t be expected to know how to use it simply because it is fielded. New warfighting certifications are in order and must be rapidly redefined and benchmarked by the Fleet Problems in order to pace technology and make the Navy credible. This will require that a significant amount of time be dedicated to real-world experimentation.

So How the Does the Navy Spend its Time? 

“Our forward presence force is the finest such force in the world. But operational effectiveness in the wrong competitive space may not lead to mission success. More fundamentally, has the underlying rule set changed so that we are now in a different competitive space? How will we revalue the attributes in our organization?” –Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka  11

These severe experimentation and training shortfalls are not at all due to lack of funding, but rather by faulty decisions on what is actually important for Sailors to focus their time on and what naval forces should be used for in the absence of great power war. Meanwhile, the power projection era featured extreme deployment rates that have run the Navy into the ground.

The Government Accountability Office states that 63 percent of the Navy’s destroyers, 83 percent of its submarines, and 86 percent of its aircraft carriers experienced maintenance overruns from FY 2011-2016 that resulted in almost 14,000 lost operational days – days where ships were not available for operations.12 How much of this monumental deployment effort went toward aggressively experimenting and training for great power conflict instead of performing lower-end missions? Hardly any if none at all because Adm. Swift termed the idea to use a unit’s deployment time for realistic experimentation an “epiphany.”

In order to more efficiently meet insatiable operational demand and slow the rate of material degradation the Navy implemented the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) that reforms the cycle by which the Navy generates ready forces through maintenance, training, and sustainment phases.13 But Adm. Swift alleges that this major reform has caused the Navy to improperly invest its time:

“Commanders were busy following the core elements in our Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) training model, going from event to event and working their way through the list of training objectives as efficiently as possible. Rarely did we create an environment that allowed them to move beyond the restraints of efficiency to the warfighting training mandate to ensure the effectiveness of tactics, techniques, and procedures. We were not creating an environment for them to develop their own warfighting creativity and initiative.”

A check-in-the-box culture has been instituted to cope with crushing deployments rates at the expense of fostering leaders that embody the true warfighter ethos of imaginative tacticians and operational commanders. The OFRP cycle is under so much tension from insatiable demand and run-down equipment that Adm. Swift described it as a “Swiss watch—touching any part tended to cause the interlocking elements to bind, to the detriment of the training audience.” But as Adm. Swift already noted, pre-deployment training wasn’t even focused on preparing for the high-end fight anyway.

Every single deployment is an opportunity to practice and experiment. Simply teaching unit leaders to make time for such events will be valuable training itself as they figure out how to delegate responsibilities in an environment that more closely approximates wartime conditions. After all, if units are currently straining on 30 hours of sleep a week performing low-end missions and administrative tasks, how can we be sure they know how to make time to fight a high-stakes war while also maintaining a ship that’s falling apart?

Being a deckplate leader of a warship has always been an enormously busy job and there is always something a warship can do to be relevant. But it is a core competence of leaders at all levels to know what to make time for and how to delegate accordingly. From the sailor checking maintenance tasks to the combatant commander tasking ships for partner development engagements, a top-to-bottom reappraisal of what the Navy needs to spend its time doing is in order. Are Sailors performing tasks really needed to win a war? Are the ships being deployed on missions that serve meaningful priorities?

Major reform will be necessary in order to reestablish priorities to make large amounts of time for realistic training and experimentation. In addition to making enough time, it is also a question of having enough forces on hand when the fleet is stretched thin. Adm. Swift described a carrier strike group (CSG) being used in a Fleet Problem where “the entire CSG was OpFor [Red team] – an enormous investment that yielded unique and valuable lessons.” Does this mean that aircraft carriers, the Navy’s largest and most expensive warships, are especially hard-pressed to secure time for realistic experimentation and training? Can the Navy assemble more than a strike group’s worth of ships to simulate a competitor’s naval forces?

The recent deployment of three strike groups to the Pacific means it is possible. Basic considerations include asking whether the Navy has enough ships on hand to simulate a distributed fleet and enough units to simulate great power adversaries that have the advantages of time, space, and numbers. But with where the deployment priorities currently stand, the Navy may not have enough time or ships on hand to regularly simulate accurate scenarios. 

A Credibility Crisis in the Making

“…there are many, many examples of where our ships their commanding officers, their crews are doing very well, but if it’s not monitored on a continuous basis these skills can atrophy very quickly.”  Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson 14

When great power conflict last broke out in WWII the war at sea was won by admirals like Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and Raymond Spruance whose formative career experiences were greatly influenced by the interwar-period Fleet Problems. This tradition of excellence based on realism is in doubt today.

What is clear is that business as usual cannot go on. The fundamental necessity of free-play elements for ensuring warfighting realism is beyond reproach. The reemergence of competition between the world’s greatest powers in a maritime theater is making many of the Navy’s power projection skillsets less and less relevant to geopolitical reality. New deployment priorities must preference realistic training and experimentation to make up for lost ground in concept development, accurately inform planning, understand the true limits and potential of technology, and test the mettle of frontline units. 

The recent pair of collisions challenged numerous assumptions about how the Navy operates and how it maintains its competencies. Tragic as those events were, they thankfully stimulated an energetic atmosphere of reflection and reform. But the competencies that such reforms are targeting include things like navigation, seamanship, and ship-handling. These basic maritime skills have existed for thousands of years. What is far newer, endlessly more complex, and absolutely vital to deter and win wars is the ability to employ networked and distributed naval forces in great power conflict. Compared to the fatal collisions, countless more sailors are dying virtual deaths in the Fleet Problems that are revealing shocking deficiencies in how the Navy prepares for war. Short of horrifying losses in real combat, there is no greater wake-up call.

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


[1] Admiral Scott H. Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018.  https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-03/fleet-problems-offer-opportunities

[2] Forward…From the Sea, U.S. Department of the Navy, 1994. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/navy/forward-from-the-sea.pdf 

[3] Ibid., 8. 

[4] William S. Sims, “Naval War College Principles and Methods Applied Afloat” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March-April 1915. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1915-03/naval-war-college-principles-and-methods-applied-afloat

[5] Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, Second Edition, pg. 33, Naval Institute Press, 1999.

[6] Can be inferred from official U.S. Navy ship counts on battleships and aircraft carriers and near-term capabilities of anti-ship capabilities.

[7] Sam LaGrone, “The Next Act for Aegis”, U.S. Naval Institute News, May 7, 2014. https://news.usni.org/2014/05/07/next-act-aegis

[8] CNO’s Position Report 2013, U.S. Department of the Navy. http://www.navy.mil/cno/131121_PositionReport.pdf

[9] Dudley W. Knox, “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March-April 1915. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1915-03/role-doctrine-naval-warfare

[10] A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. http://www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf

[11] Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka, “Network Centric Warfare: It’s Origin, It’s Future.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1998. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1998-01/network-centric-warfare-its-origin-and-future

[12] John H Pendleton, “Testimony Before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate Navy Readiness: Actions Needed to Address Persistent Maintenance, Training, and Other Challenges Affecting the Fleet. Government Accountability Office, September 19, 2017. https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/687224.pdf

[13] “What is the Optimized Fleet Response Plan and What Will It Accomplish?” U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Navy Live, January 15, 2014. http://navylive.dodlive.mil/2014/01/15/what-is-the-optimized-fleet-response-plan-and-what-will-it-accomplish/

[14] Department of Defense Press Briefing by Adm. Richardson on results of the Fleet Comprehensive Review and investigations into the collisions involving USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, November 2, 2017. https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1361655/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-adm-richardson-on-results-of-the-fleet/ 

Featured Image: SASEBO, Japan (Feb. 28, 2018) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Megann Helton practices course plotting during a fast cruise onboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis/Released)

The Strategic Readiness Review: Opportunities for Future Success?

The following was submitted in response to CIMSEC’s Call for Articles on restoring warfighting readiness.

 By Tom Bayley, CAPT (Ret.) USN

The Strategic Readiness Review provides a good start for institutional reflection and debate as the U.S. Navy moves forward in addressing warfighting readiness. However, trying to address the complex “system of systems” contributing to readiness in 80 pages is a daunting task. Further examination is required to ensure the institution is doing more than identifying symptoms and contributing factors to a complex situation. Candid discussion and debate is needed in an effort to identify root causes and systemic issues to ensure the Navy learns from this introspective study.


The last paragraph of the Executive Summary to this report claims “leadership is the most important element to this journey” to restore readiness. Although not specifically calling out Navy senior leadership as an underlying cause, the issue of “institutional accountability” alludes to the royal “we” of how senior leaders could have (and should have) done better. The 2012 message by ADM John Harvey to the Surface Community just prior to his retirement should have been a red flare, invoking the royal “we” nearly 80 times in his candid reflection. He warned the community was straying from standards in excellence and opined they had lost focus on effectiveness over emphasis on efficiency.

A thorough debate of the SRR’s findings is warranted, asking the “why?” question several times to get to the root causes. As an example, the Executive Summary states “Many of these deficiencies have been observed and authoritatively documented for years, however the naval capacity that had been built up for the Cold War masked their impact” (p. 1).  Why were these deficiencies masked if they were observed and documented?  Why was no action taken on these?  Several times the report references the culture of the Navy, both where it had strayed and recommending where it needed to go. This begins to get to the real underlying causes of how good intentions and senior decisions over time were in adequate in shaping the complex system of systems of  warfighting readiness.

The need to develop and grow the Navy’s leaders for the future is a warfighting imperative. Being able to view all the facets of readiness, including multiple perspectives is essential. Developing the proper temporal perspective where short-term goals can have long-term impacts which run counter to the mission and the ability to resolve these differences is essential. Being able to seek out possible unintended consequences and mitigate (or even avoid) them is critical. Seeking out opportunities for success from challenges being presented is part of the recommended “learning culture.” 

As the Navy Leader Development Framework states, leadership involves competency and character. Clearly there were competency issues involved in understanding this system of systems concept toward readiness. But the issue of character is equally important where leaders must have the character to stand up and be heard, even when the news may not be good. Being able to “lead up” (whether through the operational or administrative chain of command) is required. Also being able to effectively  “lead out” is required for senior leaders, such as educating and conveying to Congress the convincing argument in an environment of competing resources (including money AND time). The Navy’s leaders and their staffs must develop the cognitive capacity to handle these complex problems with the appropriate strength in character to ensure success in warfighting.

Organizational Considerations

In reading this report, one might conclude a hint of victimization by the Navy where the Goldwater-Nichols Act (GNA) and Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA) hindered the Navy’s ability to execute its responsibilities of train, maintain, and equip naval forces. This points to the challenge where the Navy failed to thoroughly grasp the context of this legislation. The Navy’s culture to react (vice being proactive), combined with a degree of over self-confidence in excellence took the Navy down a path it might have otherwise embarked. Although a review of these dated requirements might be warranted, so should an effort of working within these guidelines be considered.

Coming from the Cold War Era, where the Navy enjoyed a great deal of independence with its “Blue Water Navy” focus to offset the Soviet threat, the Navy resisted the move toward “jointness.” It relied heavily on joint waivers for Flag Officer promotions as required by DOPMA and failed to comprehend the implications of GNA upon the Navy’s organization. OPNAV’s Strategic Plans (N5) continued to focus on strategic operational planning to support force structure positions but strategic proactive thinking was lacking at Navy headquarters. It wasn’t until the Maritime Operations Center with Maritime Headquarters (MOC/MHQ) Concept came out in 2005 where the Navy finally recognized its Fleet Commanders were the operational-level naval commanders for the Combatant Commands (vice the CNO). Even today, OPNAV N5 attempts to do theater engagement priorities for countries which sometimes runs counter to the Combatant Commander’s priorities (and responsibilities). Being from a previous Fleet Commander staff, there were numerous times where the priorities of OPNAV didn’t align with the Fleet Commanders. Hence, it’s at the Fleet Commanders where the ADCON and OPCON came together and the creative tension was fostered. Every Deployment Order required two separate routing chains. One up through the associated Combatant Commander while also chopping a separate package up through Navy channels to OPNAV. It was at the Joint Staff where the two chops would converge for review and recommendations to the Secretary of Defense. Navy’s lack of understanding of the joint processes resulted in its being handicapped in this effort as it resisted the effort to make officers joint. Just like it ignored the manning requirements of Fleet Headquarters Staffs (through community management to focus on the “higher priorities” of individual communities), lacking adequate Navy representation on Joint staffs was minimizing the Navy’s perspective.

In September 2005, the National Strategy for Maritime Security (NSMS) was issued. This was a missed opportunity for the Navy to think proactively on its implications. With the typical reactive mode of solving problems, the Navy viewed this as tasking for supporting plans with stove-piped efforts of  the Maritime Operational Threat Response (MOTR) Plan of October 2005 (FUOU) and the  National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness (which was updated in 2013). Much time and effort was devoted to effectively implement these supporting plans for the Navy without the benefit of deeper assessment. Being the first time of having a national strategy for maritime security, the Navy missed an opportunity to fully explore the implications of this new document and associated implications.

Having long suffered the issue of maritime force apportionment across geographic boundaries based upon littorally-focused boundaries (i.e. the Unified Command Plan), maritime boundaries in the middle of oceans have created frictions and tensions for decades. These issues are highlighted with the supply/demand issue in the SRR. However, with the NSMS, the nation was recognizing maritime security from a global threat perspective.

Reflecting on how the Department of Defense has evolved with GNA when faced with global threats (i.e. transcends sovereign boundaries), single organizations were assigned responsibilities and authorities for these threats. In the case of nuclear deterrence, U.S. Strategic Command was created. Additionally, it took on cyberspace responsibilities  with U.S. Cyber Command assigned as a Subordinate Unified Combatant Command (and now with plans to transform into a separate Unified Combatant Command). When the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) resulted following 9/11, specific responsibilities for terrorism were assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command as a Unified Combatant Command. The mere fact U.S Transportation Command as a Unified Combatant Command with global transportation responsibilities exists would support consideration of a Unified Combatant Command responsible for maritime security across the globe. This responsibility could be assigned to the U.S. Navy, putting the big “O” back into the Chief of Naval Operations duties. Much of the command and control already exists with the various fleet headquarters and the Maritime Operations Centers. This would then relieve the dual chain of command issue (OPCON/ADCON) that pulls at the Fleet and possibly better align the Service responsibilities of Title X with its operational responsibilities, including a more centralized line of accountability.

Fiscal Disconnect

Demands exceeding supply is nothing new. Managing costs is central to any organization whether it be government or business. It is true the current federal budgetary process does hinder the ability to conduct long-term planning and execution (especially with the consequences of the Budget Control Act). However, building the compelling and convincing argument for required resources from Congress has been a challenge. Mired by a degree of mistrust with stories of the $10,000 toilet seat, cost over-runs, and inability to clearly account for expenditures, the Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act (1982) mandated that agencies implement internal controls and systems to assure fiscal accountability in effective and efficient operations. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report of 1984 highlighted concerns with the Department of Defense’s response in grouping all the Services together. Congress continued to push hard on accountability concerns with the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 identifying significant losses with fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, requiring increased attention to fiscal accountability. The Department of Defense was singled out in the National Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 which required DoD to improve its financial accountability with the requirement to have validated financial statements no later than 30 September, 2017.

As a result of the 2010 NDAA, the Navy spent considerable time and effort the last six years in improving financial accountability. The SRR highlighted concerns voiced in the above legislation when discussing “Surface Steaming Days” (p. 59) as being an inaccurate accounting for readiness costs. Additionally the SRR calls out “the inaccuracy of the models” (p. 60) to predict maintenance requirements (relating directly to costs). The inability to accurately account for costs has hindered the ability to develop valid models to inform planning and senior level decision making. Critical thinking has been lacking to address the implications of the changes the Navy has experienced. Even the “four or five ships at home to provide one forward” rule of thumb expressed in the SRR (p. 20) has not been adjusted for the reality of delayed maintenance periods, when it may be more on the order of 6:1 required.

Clearly, the ability to accurately tell the Navy story has hindered obtaining the needed resources. However, in taking advantage of the effort to increase fiscal fidelity and accuracy mandated by law, the use of big data, and technology, there should be opportunity to revisit modeling and planning efforts within the Navy. An initiative to capture big data relating to actual operating costs should be a priority with today’s technology to see what insights it would reveal. Clearly, better models for informed decision making are warranted by the SRR’s findings and recommendations. “Big data” analytics is a growing field in the business world and the Navy should revisit its business practices accordingly.

Manning and Training

In addressing the implications of the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA), the SRR implied a degree of victimization of the naval officer due to the unique demands of the Navy and its mission. The SRR hints at a “relaxation of Goldwater-Nichols Act provisions, combined with a reduction in joint headquarters billets” (p. 39) as a possible solution. The SRR does a good job of highlighting the increasing demands on our personnel (especially the officers with increased scope and depth of responsibilities) and limitations in properly preparing them. The concern for “mastery” is a recurring theme in the Manning and Training section of the SRR.

Looking forward, the future continues to grow in scope and breadth of VUCA (vulnerability, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). The effort to develop the well-rounded “jack of all” (and master of none) naval officer applies. Pulling back on graduate education (as hinted in the SRR) is not the solution. From Churchill’s remarks, “now that we have run out of money we have to think”, cutting back on education would be a short-sighted perspective that has long term implications of secondary effects. Developing critical thinking abilities in senior leaders is essential for future success. The ability to understand the complexity of the systems of systems, ask the hard questions, see multiple perspectives, and have the cognitive capacity to be proactive is a war-fighting imperative.

One possible solution to this was proposed by ADM (ret.) James Stavridis and CAPT (ret.) Mark Hagerott in a joint article they wrote in 2009, “The Heart of an Officer: Joint, Interagency, and International Operations and Navy Career Development.” Perhaps an idea before its time, they recognized the increasing complexity of the world and the resulting increasing demands to best prepare Naval Officers for the future. They addressed many of the concerns highlighted by the SRR. However, they proposed the idea of developing separate career paths for officers based upon their assessment of environment and future trends. Their proposal builds a strong case to allow specialization of the officer corps (Unrestricted Line) along three career paths: Joint/Interagency Operations, Technical, and General Operations. Perhaps revisiting their proposal is well warranted as the time has come out the urgency produced by the SRR.


Just like readiness is described by the SRR as a system of systems, so must the way forward. However, without serious reflection and discussion to reveal all the issues involved, getting to root causes, the Navy risks an incomplete way forward. This risks further unintended consequences which could run counter to the warfighting mission. To be a learning organization requires a call for candor in open dialogue. This is a leadership challenge at all levels.

A hard look in the mirror is needed, starting with Navy culture. A good methodology might be that suggested in the recent edition of the Harvard Business Review  “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture.”  In this article, the authors provide a possible framework to assess culture (whether at the unit level or institutionally). Through this assessment process, the framework offers a means of understanding culture which can then be linked to outcomes for the organization. “Culture” is equally (if not more) complex than the issue of “Readiness.” Both relate to organizational performance which is a warfighting imperative for the Navy.

The culture of the U.S. Navy has been its greatest asset when faced with adversity and challenges yet it has also handicapped itself as the SRR contends. Living the core values “honor, courage, and commitment” demands this critical assessment and committing to the way forward. Problem-solving is one the Navy’s greatest abilities but a more proactive approach for the future is essential. Standing up the Readiness Reform and Oversight Council is a good start. Hopefully it will be more than a problem-solving effort to stovepipe solutions for managing, but rather take on a comprehensive and integrated approach that goes beyond problem-solving and into seeking opportunities for success. The way forward cannot be solved solely by management of policies, strategies, and programs. This is a leadership challenge for future success.

Tom Bayley is a former Naval Officer who retired as a Captain in 2005, with over two decades as a nuclear submariner and designated a Joint Specialty Officer (JSO). He then joined the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) to assist in the implementation of the Maritime Operations Center (MOC) Concept across the Navy. He is currently a Professor of Practice in Leadership & Ethics and is NWC’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. The views expressed above are his own and do not reflect the official views and are not endorsed by the United States Navy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other body of the United States Government.

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Featured Image: South China Sea (Feb. 6, 2018) Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Stephano Troche, from Lajas, Puerto Rico, assigned to the “Sea Knights” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 22, verifies a tools list during routine maintenance on an MH-60S Sea Hawk in the hangar bay of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Diana Quinlan/Released)