Tag Archives: Sea Control

Bringing Back Sea Power from the Deckplate on Up

Sea Control Topic Week

By ENS Olivia Morrell

Deckplate Sea Power

Sea Power is of the utmost importance in terms of global control of both economic and geographical regions. Walter Raleigh wrote in the 17th century, “whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” The U.S. has remained the leading force at sea, and in recent years has re-affirmed its dedication to command at sea. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power lists sea control as one of the five essential functions of the Navy. Sea control and sea power are terms written about in no short supply, and that are constantly highlighted by the leaders of our combatant forces. While sea power is by itself a complex issue, the means by which we achieve it are far more intricate.

The most important challenges faced by the U.S. Navy in achieving sea power are not technological, but human. The current strategy laid out by the U.S. on Sea Power is multi-faceted and dynamic, but does little to address the day-to-day challenges of our Sailors. An expectation of being the most elite Navy in the world is impossible to achieve through strategic placement of assets if we can’t properly man and train our assets. When the Navy decided to change the policy on female hair standards, training was completed across the fleet, statements were put out by the Chief of Naval Operations, and questions were addressed by leadership. When incidents at sea occurred during the summer of 2017, ships and shore commands across the fleet took an operational pause to examine safety and training. Why then, is there not a training for Sailors regarding our strategic policies and involvements across the globe?

The strategies of the U.S. Navy are still heavily influenced by the 19th Century writings of men like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian S. Corbett. Both men have written extensively on the importance of Sea power, as well as on how to achieve it. While each have distinct opinions, both agree that command of the sea serves national politics, and that it is not enough to merely have control of commercial shipping. Battle, the ability to engage in and respond to threats, must always be the underlying design of a Navy. We must ensure that we not only have the resources and plans to execute such decisive action, but also the human capability and training to do so efficiently. Corbett wrote in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy in 1911, “it is not enough that a leader should have the ability to decide rightly; his subordinates must seize at once the full meaning of his decision and be able to express it with certainty in well-adjusted action.” In other words, it is not enough that our combatant commanders know the central strategy and governing tactics that guide and shape our daily lives, they must also be able to communicate and empower their Sailors to execute.

The Navy is unique to most other branches of the military in that we train in the same environment that we fight in. Our day-to-day job consists of preservation and maintenance of the weapon, vehicle, and berthing in which we will deploy. While most forces train at home to prepare for the environment in which they will fight, we operate every day in the environment from which we will fight. Marines and Soldiers must learn to manage their expectations for engagement as many who joined with the desire to fight on the frontlines may never step foot in a hostile environment. Sailors on the other hand, rarely asked to engage in hand-to-hand combat, will be “in the field” from the moment they pull out of homeport and will remain in a hostile, dangerous environment until their homecoming. Whether operating off the coast of Florida or transiting through the Straits of Malacca, Navy ships are constantly engaged in mission-focused operations. Due to the environment in which we operate, we must remain vigilant and ready to execute combat missions at all times. This need for vigilance has been tragically embodied in the recent collisions at sea of the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald. The requirement for constant readiness to fight is demonstrated by the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were successfully launched into Syria in 2017, as well as countless other operations Navy vessels are engaging in on a daily basis. Unfortunately, our ability to respond to the order to launch missiles was not met by our ability to safely navigate our vessels. Even more unfortunately, 17 Sailors paid dearly for that imbalance.

Sea power must start at the deckplates. Naval officers and chiefs are taught that deckplate leadership is vital to ensuring that Sailors are taken care of, maintenance is done properly, and ultimately that the mission is accomplished. Deckplate leaders are leaders that are constantly present in the lives of their Sailors, who know what the orders they give actually mean, and who are engaged from the moment an order is given until it is accomplished. This type of leadership must extend beyond the demands of routine maintenance and preservation. We need leaders on the deckplates who know and can adequately represent the strategic objectives of the Navy to the Sailors on whom that mission depends. When Marines are training for a deployment to the Afghanistan, they train in simulated combat environments that help prepare them for the desert heat, as well as the intense atmosphere they will encounter. We must learn to adapt simulation tactics to our needs in the Surface Navy. Sending the bridge watchstanders to a simulator a couple times a year will not suffice. Strategy is at the forefront of Marine Corps training, every Marine knows the impact he or she has on the mission, and the role they play. The strategy of the surface Navy is on such a large scale, that it often is not felt by individual Sailors in the way it can be felt by a Marine practicing tactical team maneuvering or executing room-clearing procedures. The tactics of the surface Navy involve ships as a whole where captains and key watchstanders are sometimes the only people on board who know the role of the ship in the operational theater. Many of those watchstanders do not even understand the role their ship plays in the Navy’s larger strategy for sea power. Clearly communicating that role to every Sailor on board is the only way that we can begin to operate at the elite level which our nation’s strategy requires.

What this means today, is that we need to do a better job at training the whole Sailor and the whole ship. We need to impart on every Sailor and officer the value and importance of their role and ensure every aspect of our mission is met. It is not enough to drive our ships well, nor is it enough to launch missiles with accuracy. Every Sailor on board every ship in our fleet is important, from the ships forward deployed to the ships in the yards, it must be clear what we are working toward. Small tactical mistakes, maintenance deficiencies, and lackluster training must be treated with as much regard as a combat error. The only way to ensure that care is given to the smallest of tasks on board our ships, is to train and emphasize sea power from the deckplates up.

Olivia J. Morrell is from Albuquerque, NM, and graduated with a degree in Oceanography from the Naval Academy in 2017. She is currently a Surface Warfare Officer onboard the USS Cole (DDG-67), in Norfolk, Virginia. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (August 24, 2018) Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class William Decker (left), from Pinedale, Arizona, and Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Matthew Thomas, from Port St. Lucie, Florida, assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, perform maintenance on the Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared System aboard the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kyleigh Williams)

Sea Control at the Tactical Level of War

Sea Control Topic Week

By LT Adam Humayun, USN

From the dawn of naval war through the mid-twentieth century, sea control served political ends only indirectly. A force that exercised sufficient control of waterways could bombard, assault, withdraw, and feint from the sea, but could not (unless fighting an island enemy) produce war-ending consequences, absent victory on land.1 Witness Britain’s numerous post-Trafalgar conventional and guerilla campaigns against Napoleon. Even in the vast oceanic reaches of the Second World War’s Pacific theater, the Allies chose to seize key nodes in Japan’s island defensive network rather than simply suppress them. In the industrial era of warfare, comparatively few such nodes could be destroyed by fire, and new aircraft and ships could be made quickly available if destroyed. Sea control was an indispensable prerequisite to victory, but by itself did not win wars.2

In modern maritime war between great powers, sea control equates to leverage for war termination and the shape of post-war international relations. The late twentieth century saw two paired technical-tactical developments the – prevalence of missiles as the primary weapon at sea and the dawn of the post-industrial production era. As such, offensive power is no longer proportionate to the price or size of a combatant, and mass production can no longer be expected to replenish combat losses in time.3

Sea control is about sinking these ships and aircraft, platforms that are growing in vulnerability and are harder to replace than their predecessors. A force that performs well in attrition will weaken, and in many dimensions of military power, perhaps even disarm an adversary. Destroying military assets that cannot be effectively replaced for years, and only after the political issues at hand have been resolved, grants sea control today a value well beyond its immediate military effects. The battlespace, concrete and conceptual, in which contenders will struggle for sea control thus needs to be carefully defined.

This article explores sea control at the tactical level of war in an age defined by precision-guided munitions and post-industrial production. It opens by defining sea control in terms of objective, means, and effect, and proceeds to identify the capabilities key to achieving it. After discussing how to exploit and maintain sea control once won, it concludes by reflecting on the best path to effective training. Ultimately, sea control depends on attriting enemy sensors and shooters through superior scouting and decision-making – both processes complicated by the fog of war and by enemy interference. The review here is cursory, and further exploration of this general topic and the subtopics broached will be constructive.

Sea Control in the Missile Age: The Scouting and Network Battles

Modern combat at sea remains sudden, violent, and shrouded in uncertainty. The increasing speed, range, and autonomy of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and their associated sensors lends an advantage to the attacker.4 The fog of war persists: even when targeting information is available, uncertainty and human psychology often prevent its efficient exploitation. Electronic Warfare (EW), Cyber, deception, and anti-scouting capabilities will all play a role in expanding the fog of war, contra all predictions of “dominant battlespace knowledge.”5 Even superficial observation of trends in EW shows modern militaries are prepared to target sensors extensively.6

Sea control can be partial and is geographically defined. Objectively, it lasts only as long as the force and any defended assets remain outside the effective range of enemy PGM shooters; subjectively, only as long as the force believes this to be the case.

The net-centric force structures of modern great power militaries nest different types and levels of capability in different launch and scouting platforms. These networks may degrade gracefully under fire, but not in linear fashion.7 First, partial sea control can be said to exist when some platforms have been attrited (or when their force inventory is exhausted). Second, partial sea control can be said to exist when critical scouting capabilities have been denied, whether through attrition or (perhaps less likely, depending on the scenario) through non-kinetic fires. Either condition eases the problem of defending amphibious ships, merchants, and fixed sites on land by reducing options available to the attacker, conversely allowing air defense units to assume optimal dispositions against one or a few threats.

Sea control is about attrition. The long-range offensive power of nearly every platform in the missile age dictates this. The reconnaissance-strike complex composed of sensors –whether organic to the shooter or offboard – and missile systems of all kinds is increasingly able to reach out to hundreds of nautical miles of effective range.8 A place- (vice time- or method-based) maneuver warfare approach is not going to stop modern PGMs – only blinding the sensor or killing the shooter will do so.9

Sea control entails attrition; attrition in turn entails rapid and effective threat detection, combat ID (CID), targeting (inclusive of ROE), engagement, and battle damage assessment (BDA). In U.S. military parlance, this process is termed F2T2EA (Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, Assess). Whatever their name, all these processes will be opposed by an adversary seeking to slow one’s own Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop.10 Given these underlying conflicts within the broader struggle at the tactical level, we can best understand them cut into two parts – a scouting battle for acquisition of targeting information, and a network battle for its exploitation.

The scouting battle entails the competition between reconnaissance-strike complexes –be they SAGs, carrier strike groups, aircraft, or any combination of these – to acquire targeting information. Electronic warfare, deception, and conventional weapons could all contribute to anti-scouting campaigns. Effectiveness in scouting relies on coordinating multiple platforms and techniques to maximize probability of detection and communication while minimizing the vulnerability of one’s own assets.11 Effective anti-scouting entails dispositions that are difficult for scouts to detect or to classify, early warning, rapid combat ID, and sufficient firepower at the right time and place to attrit reconnaissance platforms.

The network battle consists of the competition between reconnaissance-strike complexes for the use of targeting information. It is a race to make and communicate decisions, one where sabotage is also possible. A force well-postured for the network battle will rely on mission command, including austere C2 and pre-planned responses, emphasizing rapid and seamless transition between the paradigms of “structured battle” and “melee” that were well-identified by CAPT (Ret.) Robert Rubel in a 2017 article.12 At the same time, the force will use all available means – including communications jamming, deception, and other information operations – to slow the adversary OODA loop, delaying and diluting the impact of its discovery and targeting.

These twin lines of effort pay dividends for sea control. The force that “wins” the scouting battle – all other things being equal – will be in a better position to contend for sea control, winning timely and accurate targeting information while denying the same to the enemy. Advantage in the network battle allows a force to quickly respond to changing conditions, maximizing firepower – and, perhaps, surprise – through quick reaction, as well as maximizing resiliency through reducing dependence on top-down, unitary, and vulnerable C2 nodes.

Winning and Maintaining Sea Control: Lethality versus Shaping

The discussion thus far has centered on attrition – what one might term the lethality approach to sea control. But why not seek to win or maintain sea control through less violent means? An alternative to the lethality approach to sea control is at least conceivable. This alternative can be termed shaping – a reliance on unit-level deterrence. Where a lethality approach continues the emphasis on attriting adversary scouts and shooters, a shaping approach targets the perceptions of threat platform COs, adjusting their perception of risk and reward to deter aggressive action. In the abstract, it seems the lethality approach would be applicable against challenges to sea control that fall under CAPT Rubel’s structured battle and melee combat paradigms. At least against a modern naval threat the shaping approach has good prospects only against challenges that rely on Rubel’s sniping paradigm.13

The tactical dynamics of the missile age undermine the shaping approach. Substantial advantage accrues to the side that “attacks effectively first;” where anti-missile defenses of all types and ship survivability are sufficient if effective attack blunts counterattack.14 Several countries have made substantial investments in advanced ship- and aircraft-launched anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and consistently train for their employment.15 The highly centralized C2 seen in some navies also might reduce the scope of decision-making authority available to unit commanders.16 During a crisis with a peer competitor, it appears unlikely that either side could muster sufficient force to absorb a first strike should shaping fail.

Even against isolated PGM snipers, however, the shaping approach has significant drawbacks. Unlike the submarines of World War II, modern warships and submarines have effective firing ranges measured in hundreds of miles. Particularly the latter have likely improved their relative ability to avoid detection, if not to escape prosecution. Not all COs will be as easily intimidated as the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Admiral Kurita at the Battle Off Samar.  The forces needed to deter a professional and determined adversary would be better employed hunting that same adversary. Even once sea control is won, a lethality approach that emphasizes attrition remains primary.

Training for Sea Control: Nested Competition

A Tactical Action Officer (TAO) on watch at night onboard a destroyer acting as SAG commander (SAGC) confronts two empty large screen displays, their blue monotony broken only by the occasional merchant or commercial aircraft track. In searching for the enemy SAG, the TAO and the watchteam must be able to pick out the foe from environmentals and neutrals, satisfy rules of engagement (ROE), match weapon to target, win concurrence from the Commanding Officer and other appropriate legal authorities, and do all this quickly enough to “attack effectively first.”17 When this is done, the salvo away, the force must quickly conduct battle damage assessment (BDA) to determine if reengagement is needed. This is sea control in practice: a realm of ambiguity where human factors, especially level of knowledge, presence of mind, and sangfroid, are decisive in tactical effectiveness.

Training for sea control ought to reflect the reality of sea combat in the age of PGMs: that despite all technical developments, human factors continue to define war. The importance of winning the scouting and network battles, of blinding the enemy, of working inside his OODA loop, of deceiving him – all to the end of delivering the first effective attack – all of these pieces can be seen in “lessons learned” from SAG vs. SAG and similar free-play events in many U.S. and multilateral exercises. The extent they confront participants with the experience of the totality of combat – psychological and technical – will mean these events can prepare trainees well.

From a U.S. Navy standpoint, progress is evident. Scripted firing events are gradually being supplanted in favor of Live Fire With A Purpose (LFWAP) events mimicking real-world weapons employment conditions. A comprehensive and usable standard ruleset for SAG vs. SAG and freeplay events, and the explicit, fleetwide understanding that these mock combat events – vice scripted certification evolutions or PHOTOEXs – are the “main course” in major exercises would facilitate planning and maximize training value.


The tactical dynamics and political-military impact of combat at sea are mediated by technological trends, but human factors remain central to its actual conduct. Topics deserving further exploration include, among many others: to what extent does the OODA loop model so ingrained in U.S. and Western forces remain valid at sea in an age of semi-autonomous weapons? What capabilities and which tactics, techniques, and procedures provide the greatest leverage for the scouting and network battles? Which C2 constructs do so? Are there elements of the “dominant battlespace knowledge” concept that are not fatally flawed on their assumptions? The force that is prepared to ask these questions, answer them, and then incorporate lessons learned into training and practice will have the advantage in a near- to-medium-term struggle for sea control.

Lieutenant Humayun, a native of Madison, New Jersey, graduated summa cum laude from The George Washington University with a B.A. in International Affairs (Conflict and Security Studies) in 2012. He commissioned in December 2013 from the U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. Onboard USS SHILOH (CG 67) he has served as CF Division Officer and Turbines Officer, and onboard USS MUSTIN (DDG 89) as Fire Control Officer.

He participated in multiple Strike Group patrols, Combined, and Joint Operations in the SEVENTH Fleet AOR, coordinated successful live SM-2 firing exercises in 2017 and 2018 and led planning for MUSTIN’s role as SAG commander in MULTISAIL 2018. Lieutenant Humayun is a qualified Tactical Action Officer who has stood the watch both at Condition III and for Special Evolutions in a high-threat OPAREA.  

Lieutenant Humayun’s decorations include the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, and various unit and service awards. 

All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or any of their subcomponents.


1. See generally Corbett, Julian S. Some Principles of Maritime Operations (1911 ed.). Accessed 9/2/18 <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15076/15076-h/15076-h.htm>

2. For the Pacific Campaign, see Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016.

3. See Hughes, Wayne P. “Missile Chess: A Parable,” in Hughes, Wayne P. ed. The U.S. Naval Institute on Naval Tactics. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015 (181-190).

4. An excellent general introduction is Watts, Barry. The Maturing Revolution in Military Affairs. Report. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington, D.C., 2011. Accessed 9/2/2018 <https://csbaonline.org/uploads/documents/2011.06.02-Maturing-Revolution-In-Military-Affairs1.pdf>

5. For examples of confident predictions of dominant battlespace knowledge, see Stewart E. Johnson, “DBK: Opportunities and Challenges,” in Libicki, Martin and Stewart  E.Johnson, eds. Dominant Battlespace Knowledge. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1995. For anti-scouting, see Hughes, Fleet Tactics, pg. 193.

6. Gordon, Michael R., and Jeremy Page. “China Installed Military Jamming Equipment on Spratly Islands, U.S. Says.” The Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2018. Accessed September 2, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-installed-military-jamming-equipment-on-spratly-islands-u-s-says-1523266320.

7. Hughes, Wayne P. Fleet Tactics, Table 11-1 (First Strike Survivors).

8. Watts, “Maturing Revolution,”pg. 21-25.

9. Surprise and deception are not unique to maneuver warfare approaches, but are inherent in the maneuver paradigm. For comparison of various (mostly pre-missile age) approaches to deception, see Whaley, Barton. Stratagem: Deception and Surprise in War. Artech House, 2002.

10. Implicit in John R. Boyd’s presentation, “Patterns of Conflict,” accessed 9/2/18 <https://www.dnipogo.org/boyd/patterns_ppt.pdf>. See especially slides 101-117

11. An excellent discussion is Kline, Jeffrey E., “A Tactical Doctrine for Distributed Lethality,” Center for International Maritime Security, February 22, 2016. Access 9/2/18 <https://cimsec.org/tactical-doctrine-distributed-lethality/22286#_edn7>

12. Rubel, Robert C. “Mission Command in a Future Naval Combat Environment.” Naval War College Review Vol. 71 No. 2 (Spring 2018), 110-113. Accessed 8/23/18 <http://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol71/iss2/8>

13. Rubel, “Mission Command,” 110-113.

14. Hughes, Fleet Tactics.

15. Gormley, Dennis M. et al. “A Potent Vector: Assessing Chinese Cruise Missile Developments.” Joint Force Quarterly No. 75 (September 2014). Accessed 9/2/18 <http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/577568/jfq-75-a-potent-vector-assessing-chinese-cruise-missile-developments/>.

16. Erickson, Andrew S. and Michael S. Chase, “Informationization and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy,” in Saunders, Philip et al., eds The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities,Evolving Roles. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2011, pgs. 265-268.

17. Hughes, Wayne P., Jr. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 24, 2018) An E-2C Hawkeye, with Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 117, sits chocked and chained on the flight deck aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). John C. Stennis is underway conducting routine operations in the U.S. 3rd Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class William Rosencrans)

New Forms of Naval Operational Planning for Earning Command of the Seas

Sea Control Topic Week

By Bill Shafley 


Sea Control operations require a delicate balance of protecting the hunters and releasing the hounds. Strike Group and subordinate staff’s tactical planning, general thinking, and day-to-day operations are biased toward the defense of a High Value Unit. This is a direct result of nearly thirty years of fighting from-the-sea not for-the-sea – or to use operational terms – existing as a power-projection force without the burden of first establishing maritime superiority through sea control operations. Future operations against peer competitors will require a different mode of thinking to understand the nuances of employing a strike group’s combat power where near-constant tradeoffs are required between offense and defense. Staffs must refine their thinking and improve their methods in three ways to make planning for Sea Control operations more effective.

Warfighting staffs must develop an increased understanding of sea control from the strategic to tactical levels. This would improve risk assessment by ensuring decision-makers can link a resource informed theory, of establishing and maintaining it, to the value that maritime superiority brings to the larger operation. A review of Sir Julian Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy provides this basis.

Planners must organize their tactical thinking around the joint battlefield and all domains of warfare to plan for sea control operations. Planning in terms of these functions (movement/maneuver, fires, protection, intelligence, and sustainment, and command and control (C2) will force staff members out of thinking about the tactical problem through the stovepiped Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) structure. Planners should appropriately balance limited strike group resources in a manner that sets task and purpose for each warfare commander to execute.

Staff and planners require a framework to examine and visualize the tactical problems associated with establishing and maintaining maritime superiority operations. Wayne Hughes’ well-known work Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat provides this inclusive framework. His methodology helps warfighters understand the resourcing tradeoffs necessary to establish and maintain the level of maritime superiority needed for mission accomplishment and effectiveness. And, more importantly, Hughes work can help staffs identify and capture risk in a manner that informs and communicates a commander’s risk appetite.

Theories and Degrees of Command of the Sea

It is important to understand sea control from its historic origins. Planners must apply critical thinking to the operational and tactical considerations of achieving the proper level of maritime superiority through sea control operations. While doing that, Sir Julian Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy and the Green Pamphlet provide a good place to start. “Command at-sea exists only in a state of war.”1 This is an important distinction, where the use of the expression presupposes a fleet structure adequate to confront a maritime adversary and prevail.2

The relationship between war and command of the sea is an important one. In an active state of conflict with another maritime power, naval forces compete for command of the sea, or as modern doctrinal language would call it, maritime superiority or supremacy. The navy that leaves the competitor unable to seriously interfere with their ability or achievement of their own objectives is said to have it.3 Corbett structures command of the sea in terms of degree. It can be general or local, temporary or permanent.

This discussion of scope in terms of area and duration is important for planners to comprehend. The Fleet’s requirement to establish command of the seas are born of the necessity its operations support. Command of the sea comes with a price tag in terms of opportunity costs and scarce resources. Generally permanent command of the sea must be achieved throughout the theater of operations and it must be maintained indefinitely. This condition may be achieved only by the annihilation of the enemy’s capabilities and an associated set of resources and level of effort. Local temporary command more narrowly scopes the requirement in terms of a location and duration, tied to the necessary theater military objective of a fleet’s operations support.4 It is this more temporal control of the sea that is the providence of carrier strike groups and subordinate staffs, and may be met with a different set of resources and effort.

This logic forms the basis of a basic strategy question, which is answered at higher level echelons. Operational level fleet staffs do their best to translate Corbett’s thinking into action. Command of the sea as Corbett worked to define it, has been replaced with discussions of maritime superiority as achieved through sea control operations. Sea Control operations (the destruction of enemy naval forces, suppression of enemy sea commerce, protection of vital seal lanes, protection of shipping, and establishment of local maritime superiority in areas of naval operation) are introduced as terms of art to aid planners in further developing tactical tasks to subordinate units to achieve it.           

It’s important for planners, regardless of the what echelon they work at, to ensure Corbett’s distinctions do not get lost. His nuances are important. Corbett’s degrees of command of the sea are directly tied to the operational and tactical discussions surrounding establishing and maintaining maritime superiority. The degree of maritime superiority required shapes a theory of control that is based upon its relation to the larger operation it supports. If the success of the entire operation requires unencumbered access to seaborne lines of communication, then planners need to develop a theory of control and dedicate the resources necessary to ensure that objective is met. If in a more limited conflict, the seaward approaches must be made available to enable timed seaborne fires and effects to set the conditions for land-based operations, then planners will need to develop a different theory of control and dedicate a commensurate set of resources to meet those objectives. In either case, the type and degree of command of the sea required is different. Thinking through command of the sea in this manner allows a commander to communicate risk appetite, establish task priorities, and help planners assign tactical tasks and intimately understand the extent of resourcing necessary to meet the condition.

Command of the Sea in Operational Context

Warfighters responsible for sea control require a tool to help them better visualize a war at sea and the level of maritime superiority it requires. Strike group commanders must be able to issue intent that captures risk appetite, task priorities, and the tactical problems associated with establishing sea control. Wayne Hughes’ in his well-known work Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat provides such a model. Hughes contends that war at sea is attrition based and therefore revolves around the timing of successful delivery of effective firepower. To successfully deliver effective firepower, some sort of command and control must exist to task units to find, fix, and engage enemy ships and aircraft before they do the same to the friendly force. War at sea is therefore a dance where commanders, through C2, maneuver, firepower and scouting assets achieve successful engagements within the battle space to.6

Firepower, the ability to destroy an enemy, is countered with counterforce, the capacity to reduce the effect of delivered firepower. Scouts, units tasked to deliver tactical information about the enemy’s position, vulnerabilities, and intent are countered with anti-scouts, units tasked to destroy or disrupt, or degrade a scouting force. Command and Control Systems, the processes and equipment used to define missions and transform them into actions are met with actions and processes taken to limit their effectiveness.7 The goal of a commander being to achieve “[t]he fundamental tactical position…the early detection of the enemy”8 and therefore concentrate firepower at long ranges.9

With a refined sense of the level of maritime superiority required for mission success, this rubric can be a powerful tool. It can help a staff visualize the solution to the tactical problem associated with establishing command of the sea, prioritize tasks, as well as further the scope and communicate risk appetite from the commander to subordinate units. Thinking through a sea control problem using this method allows the commander to assess available combat power and think through the maneuver considerations necessary to place it in position to achieve effect. Firepower and counterforce considerations allow a commander to think through how much firepower will be necessary to adequately attrite an enemy in the face of active and passive defenses. Scouting and anti-scouting considerations allow a commander to think through how much firepower must be taken away from the main body to find and fix first. By considering maneuver with these pairings in mind, the commander has an opportunity to look beyond stationing considerations and really dig into where the strike group and its assets need to be to attack effectively first with resources and task priorities aligned to risk.

Augmenting the Composite Warfare Commander Construct

A Sailor’s thinking regarding operations at sea is informed by the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) construct. The CWC organization is structured around warfare commanders and coordinators. Warfare commanders manage the defense of the carrier across various domains such as air, land, maritime, and space, as well as the information environment (cyberspace). Warfare coordinators manage common resources required by warfare commanders to enact those missions such as data in the case of tactical datalinks, aircraft, and ships as they are necessary to screen the main body. Operational Tasking (OPTASK) messages are drafted and generated to provide procedural controls put into action through command by negation. Each warfare commander has a modest staff that coordinates warfare responsibilities with the CSG staffs, as they are the primary point of entry for tasking from the Fleet Commander. This staff structure has proven effective for steady state operations for decades.

The application of Hughes’ tactical model does not align well with the CWC concept. As a result, it is important to understand possible implications and the effects on planning for sea control operations. The notion of a CSG planning staff generating planning products that inform the Warfare Commanders’ execution loses credibility as the sea control fight drives the warfighting staffs to resource problems to the balance of offense and defense required to attack effectively first. The CSG staff and warfare commanders will be challenged to create risk informed and prioritized phased courses of action (COA) that are nuanced enough to be successful.

Shifting the planning construct from a warfare commander-centric mode to one of joint battlefield functions (movement/maneuver, fires, protection, intelligence, sustainment and C2) may prove more beneficial. Achieving a degree of maritime superiority requires balancing offense and defense in the context of risk. It requires setting priorities. Hughes’ tool provides the framework to visualize the fight and communicate commander’s intent. Approaching COA development through joint battlefield functions will take advantage of the insights gained through Hughes’ model. Instead of each warfare commander and coordinator looking at a tactical problem through a narrow lenses of domain, battlefield functions afford a unifying approach to resourcing and prevailing in the fight.

If the sea control problem favors preserving combat power for prolonged action on station, a bias toward a Hughes’ counterforce approach may prevail. This makes less scouts available to find and fix the position of enemy targets in favor of protecting the main body. It could also portend that maneuver and counter-C2 approaches take precedence over offensive considerations until the timing is right. Protection tasks take precedence based upon the nature of the highest probability threat, intelligence demand is shifted from finding targets to looking for indications and warnings, fires (air and surface launched weapons) are prioritized appropriately, and the force is dispersed and maneuvered in a manner that mitigates detection risk. Starting the planning dialogue from here is a much different approach than to have warfare commanders take a supporting/supported commander approach to develop a COA.

Battlefield functions will provide a richer forum to discuss common questions such as:

  • Which warfare commander is in charge of protection in a threat environment that is coming from all domains (air, surface, subsurface, and information)?
  • Which warfare commander owns dual use fires and the associated targeting process?
  • How are priorities determined and risk appetite communicated?

It is not the point to propose a new operating construct. The CWC organization remains fit for purpose in most regards and would be impractical to change. Yet, introducing battlefield functions to staff planners across all echelons, to use in COA development, will complement their ability to plan for complex sea control operations.


Effective sea control operations require staffs to understand the nuances associated with establishing and maintaining maritime superiority. A deeper study of the background thinking surrounding command of the sea affords planners a solid foundation to build tactical plans to achieve maritime superiority. The degree of maritime superiority requires a theory of control that is balanced between resources and effort to meet joint force objectives. The CSG Commander and his or her warfighters should consider incorporating Hughes’ thinking about maneuver, firepower, counterforce, scouting, anti-scouting, and command and control to help better understand and communicate their priorities and risk appetite to ensure its limited assets make that necessary contribution to that theory of victory. Battlefield functions as an organizing heuristic in planning over one that is warfare commander centric improves the understanding of the associated tasks and will lead to better CONOPS development.

The Carrier Strike Group will be the primary maneuver element in the maritime based engagements of the future. Fleet Staffs will look to CSGs and their warfighters to provide the sustained combat power necessary to exploit sea control for maximum effect. Staffs must understand their contribution to this larger fight, communicate priority and risk both down and up echelon to win. These three small shifts in thinking could have much larger impacts on the lethality of every CSG’s ships, aircraft, and Sailors and their readiness to plan for battle in the future fight.

Captain Bill Shafley is a career Surface Warfare Officer and currently serves as the Deputy Commodore, Destroyer Squadron 26. He has served on both coasts and overseas in Asia and Europe. He is a graduate of the Naval War College’s Advanced Strategy Program and a designated Naval Strategist.  He thanks Lieutenant Commander Matt Noland for his continued dialogue on these important issues. These views are presented in a personal capacity.


1. Corbett, Julian S. Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. New York: AMS Press, 1972. Print. p. 337

2. Ibid, p. 337

3. Ibid, p. 338

4. Ibid, pp. 338-339

5. CAPT Chris Senenko, LtCol Rob Gardner, and CDR Scott Croskey have been experimenting with this model with their Maritime Adavnce Warfare School students at the Naval War College. I am grateful for them exposing me to this thinking.

6. Hughes, Wayne P, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 2000. Print. p.174

7. bid, p.175

8. Ibid, p.179

9. Ibid, p.179

Featured Image: GULF OF ADEN (Sept. 4 2018) – Lt. William Maloney, ship’s aircraft handler, uses the ship’s 3MC announcement system from flight deck control aboard Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) during a regularly scheduled deployment of Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Freeman)

Topic Week on Bringing Back Sea Control Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This week CIMSEC will be featuring articles sent in response to our Call for Articles on bringing back sea control. Below is a list of articles and authors that will be featured during the topic week and could be updated as prospective authors finalize additional submissions. 

New Forms of Naval Operational Planning for Earning Command of the Seas by Bill Shafley
Sea Control at the Tactical Level of War by Adam Humayun
Bringing Back Sea Power from the Deckplate on Up by Olivia Morrell
For Sea Control, First Control the Electromagnetic Spectrum by Damien Dodge
The Nature of Sea Control and Sea Denial by Dr. Ching Chang
Merchant Warships and Creating a Modern 21st Century East Indiaman by Steve Wills
Fighting For Sea Control in the Next War by Lars Wedin
Adjusting to New Conditions for Command of the Seas by Theodore Bazinis

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

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (July 24, 2018) The Royal Australian Navy guided-missile frigate HMAS Melbourne (FFG 05) is underway at sunset July 24, during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class David Weydert/Released)