The following article originally appeared in The Naval War College Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. It will be republished in three parts, read Part One here.
By Christofer Waldenström
The Field of Sensors
To determine whether the field of safe travel is receding toward the minimum safety zone, the commander must be able to observe the objects present in the naval battlefield. Today, the naval battlefield comprises more than just the surface of the sea. Threats of all sorts can come from either beneath the surface or above it. The driver of a car determines from the pertinent visual field whether the field of safe travel is receding toward the minimum stopping zone.22 For a commander, however, it is not possible to perceive directly the elements of the operations area—the naval battlefields are far too vast. Instead, as noted above, the objects present have to be inferred, on the basis of sensor data.23
Thus, there exists a “field of sensors” that the commander uses to establish whether the field of safe travel approaches the edge of the minimum safety zone. The field of sensors is an objective spatial field the boundaries of which are determined by the union of the coverage of all sensors that provide data to the commander. The importance of the sensor field is also emphasized in one theory of perception-based tactics that has been advanced (though without discussion of its spatial dimensions).24 As the sensors that build up the field have different capabilities to detect and classify objects, the field of sensors will consequently consist of regions in which objects can be, variously, detected and classified with varying reliability. (These regions could be seen as fields in their own right, but for now we will leave them as is.) Nevertheless, to establish the boundary of the field of safe travel and determine whether it is receding toward the minimum safety zone, the commander must organize the field of sensors in such way that it is possible both to detect contacts and to classify them as nonhostile before they get inside the minimum safety zone.
Factors Limiting Detection
Several factors limit the detection of enemy units. First, terrain features can provide cover. Units that hide close to islands are difficult to detect with radar. In a similar way, a submarine that lies quietly on the bottom is difficult to distinguish from a rock formation with sonar. The weather is another factor: high waves make small targets difficult to detect; fog and rain reduce visibility for several sensors, such as visual, infrared, and radar; and temperature differences between layers in the atmosphere and in the water column influence how far sensors can see or hear. Yet another factor is stealth, or camouflage, whereby units are purposely designed to be difficult to detect with sensors. Sharp edges on a ship’s hull reflect radar waves in such ways that they do not return to the transmitting radar in detectable strength. Units are painted to blend into the background, propulsion systems are made silent, ships’ magnetic fields are neutralized, and exhaust gases are cooled—all to reduce the risk of detection. Being aware of these factors makes it possible for commanders to use them to advantage. Units might be positioned close to islands while protecting the field of safe travel, or the high-value units might select a route that will force the enemy units to move out at sea, thus making themselves possible to detect.
Factors Limiting Classification
To avoid being classified, the basic rule is to not emit signals that allow the enemy to distinguish a unit from other contacts around it. Often naval operations are conducted in areas where neutral or civilian vessels are present, and this makes it difficult to tell which contacts are hostile. To complicate matters, the enemy can take advantage of this. For example, an enemy unit can move in radar silence in normal shipping lanes and mimic the behavior of merchants, so as to be difficult to detect using radar and electronic support measures. Suppressing emissions, however, only works until the unit comes inside the range where the force commander would expect electronic support measures to classify its radar—no merchant ever travels radar silent. To detect potential threats the commander establishes a “picture” of the normal activities in the operations area. Behavior that deviates from the normal picture is suspect and will be monitored more closely. Thus, contacts that behave as other contacts do will be more difficult to classify.
The Field of Weapons
As mentioned above, the commander has three choices for handling a detected threat: move the high-value units away from the threat, take action to eliminate the threat, or receive the attack and defend. In the two latter cases the threat can be eliminated either by disabling it or by forcing it to retreat. Either way, the commander must have a weapon that can reach the target with the capability to harm it sufficiently. It is immaterial what type of weapon it is or from where it is launched, as long as it reaches the target and harms it sufficiently. Thus, the weapons carried by the commander’s subordinate units, or any other unit from which the commander can request fire support, create a “field of weapons” in which targets can be engaged. Like the field of sensors, the field of weapons is a spatial field, bounded by the union of the maximum weapon ranges carried by all units at the commander’s disposal. The field of weapons is further built up by the variety of weapons, which means that the field consists of different regions capable of handling different targets. For example, there will be regions capable of engaging large surface ships, regions capable of destroying antiship missiles, and other regions capable of handling submarines. Nevertheless, to prevent the high-value units from being sunk, the field of weapons must be organized in such way that it is possible to take action against hostile units and missiles before they get inside their corresponding minimum safety zones. For example, the threat posed by air-to-surface missiles can be dealt with by protecting two minimum safety zones. The commander can take out the enemy aircraft before they get a chance to launch the missile—that is, shoot down the aircraft before they enter the minimum safety zone created by the range of the missile they carry. If this fails the commander can take down the missiles before they hit the high-value units—that is, shoot down the missiles before they get inside the minimum safety zone created by the distance at which the missile can do damage to the high-value units.
It is now possible to specify how the fields of sensors and weapons work together: the field of sensors and the field of weapons must be organized in such a way that for each field of safe travel hostile units can be detected, classified, and neutralized before they enter the corresponding minimum safety zone. One scholar of naval tactics and scouting touches on what can serve as an illustration. Closest to the ships that should be protected is a zone of control where all enemies must be destroyed; outside the zone of control is a zone of influence or competition, something like a no-man’s-land.25 Outside the zone of influence is a zone of interest where one must be prepared against a detected enemy. Scouting in the first region seeks to target; in the second, to track; and in the third, to detect. Important to notice is that the field of sensors and the field of weapons are carried by, tied to, the commander’s units, which simultaneously bring the fields to bear with respect to all pairs of fields of safe travel and minimum safety zones. This complicates matters for the commander. As the fields of safe travel and minimum safety zones are stacked, actions taken to tackle a threat to one minimum safety zone may create problems for another. The competition of units between the pairs of minimum safety zones and fields of safe travel may lead to a situation where a managed air-warfare problem creates a subsurface problem. This bedevilment is not unknown to the naval warfare community: “The tactical commander is not playing three games of simultaneous chess; he is playing one game on three boards with pieces that may jump from one board to another.”26
To illustrate the problem, suppose that the situations in figure 3 occur simultaneously; there is both a surface and a subsurface threat to the high-value unit. In this case the field of sensors has to be organized so that contacts can be detected and classified in a circular field with a radius of a hundred kilometers (for the antiship missile, figure 3a) and also within a smaller and elliptical field (figure 3b, in the torpedo case). For example, radars and electronic support measures have to be deployed to detect and identify surface contacts, while sonar and magneticanomaly detection have to be used to secure the subsurface field. Accordingly, the field of weapons has to be organized so that contacts can be engaged before entering the respective minimum safety zones—antisubmarine weapons for subsurface threats and antiship weapons for surface threats.
Not only weapons can be used to shape the field of safe travel; another means to influence it is deception. Deception takes advantage of the inertia inherent in naval warfare. First, there is the physical inertia whereby a successful deception draws enemy forces away from an area, giving an opportunity to act in that area before the enemy can move back. Second, there is the cognitive inertia of the enemy commander. It takes some time before the deception is detected, which gives further time. Deception can, thus, be seen as a deliberate action within the enemy’s field of sensors to shape the field of safe travel to one’s own advantage. For successful deception it is necessary that commanders understand how their own actions will be picked up by the enemy’s field of sensors and that they be aware of both the enemy’s cognitive and physical inertia. The commander has to “play up” a plausible scenario in the enemy’s field of sensors and then give the enemy commander time to decide that action is needed to counter that scenario (cognitive inertia) and then further time to allow the enemy units to move in the wrong direction (physical inertia). The central role of inertia will be further discussed later.
Having defined the fundamental fields it is now possible to formulate what is required from commanders to establish sea control. The skill of securing control at sea consists largely in organizing a requisite set of pairs of correctly bounded minimum safety zones and corresponding fields of safe travel shaped to counter actual and potential threats, and in organizing the field of sensors and field of weapons in such way that that for each field of safe travel, hostile contacts can be detected, classified, and neutralized before they enter the corresponding minimum safety zone.
Factors Limiting the Field of Safe Travel
So far it has been said that it is the enemy that limits and shapes the field of safe travel. This is, however, not the whole truth. The field of safe travel is also shaped by other physical and psychological factors.
Terrain Features That Reduce Capability to Detect and Engage Targets
To be able to sink the high-value unit the enemy must detect, classify, and fire a weapon against it. All this must happen in rapid succession, or the high-value unit may slip out of the weapon’s kill zone. This means that to fire a weapon against the high-value unit the enemy must organize its field of sensors and its field of weapons so that they overlap the high-value unit at the time of weapon release. In this way the field of safe travel is built up by all the paths that take the high-value unit outside the intersection of the enemy’s field of sensors and the enemy’s field of weapons. This further means that the boundaries of the field of safe travel are determined in part by terrain regions where high-value units can go but enemy weapons cannot engage them—for example, an archipelago that provides protection against radar-guided missiles. The boundaries are also determined by the enemy’s capability to detect the high-value units, and thus terrain features can also delimit the field of safe travel in that they protect the high-value units from detection. For example, the archipelago mentioned above also provides protection against detection by helicopter-borne radar, as long as the ships move slowly. (If they start to move quickly, however, they will stand out from the clutter of islands.) It is also important to notice that a minimum safety zone is resized in the same way as the corresponding field of safe travel—if the enemy cannot see the high-value unit or has no weapon that can engage it, the enemy unit can be allowed closer in.
Terrain Regions Where Enemy Units Can Hide
Like enemy units, potential threats also throw out lines of clearance. One such potential threat is a terrain feature where the enemy might have concealed units and from which attacks can be launched (see figure 4a). Such regions—for example, islands where enemy units can hide close to land—contain potential threats. There may or may not be actual threats there, the objective field of safe travel may or may not be clear, but since commanders can only react to their subjective fields, the latter are properly shaped and limited by these barriers.
Enemy Units That Are Spotted and Then Lost
Another potential threat that will radiate clearance lines arises from the movement of enemy units. It is possible for a contact that has been detected and classified to slip out of the field of sensors —for instance, by turning off its radar after being tracked by electronic support measures. The potential movement of such a unit shapes the field of safe travel. Suppose an enemy unit was detected at position p at time t (see figure 4b). As the enemy is outside the field of safe travel, it does not pose a threat to the commander at this time. Now, the contact slips out of the field of sensors, and contact with it is lost. As time passes and the commander fails to reestablish contact, the region where the unit can be is a circle that grows proportionally to the maximum speed of the enemy unit. Eventually the region grows to such a size that it is not possible for the force to pass without the minimum safety zone intersecting with it. In figure 4b the subjective field of safe travel is correctly shaped by the potential threat, but the objective field of safe travel is clear—the enemy unit has turned around and is heading away.
Legal Obstacles and Taboos
The field of safe travel is also limited by international law. One such legal obstacle is the sea territory of neutral states. A neutral state has declared itself outside the conflict the commander is involved in, and this prohibits the parties of the conflict from using its sea territory for purposes of warfare. Such regions delimit the fields of safe travel and thus restrict where the commander’s units can move. On the other hand, they do not pose a threat to the high-value units and can safely be allowed to encroach on the minimum safety zone.
Neutral Units in the Operations Area
Today, as noted, naval operations take place in areas where neutral shipping is present. Like the sea territory of neutral states, neutral shipping is protected by international law. A consequence of this is that neutral shipping in the area also influences the shape of the field of safe travel. The commander is of course prohibited from attacking neutral merchants. This is not a problem in itself—if a certain contact is classified as neutral, we cannot engage it. Nevertheless, it has implications for where high-value units are allowed to move. As neutral shipping cannot be engaged, we are forbidden to use it for cover—for instance, to move so close to a merchant vessel as to make it difficult for the opponent to engage without risk of sinking the merchant. This means that neutral shipping creates “holes” in the field, where combatants are not allowed to move. If the commander does not track the merchant vessels continuously, these holes grow proportionally to the merchants’ maximum speed, as they do for enemy units spotted and then lost.
Mines shape the field in the same way that ships do. They can be seen as stationary ships with limited weapon ranges; the minimum safety zone for a mine would be the range at which a ship could pass it without being damaged if the mine detonated. Laying mines shapes the commander’s field, and the commander must react, either by taking another route or by actively reshaping the field—that is, by clearing the mines. Clearing mines has the same effect as taking out enemy ships; the field of safe travel expands into the area that has been cleared. Of course, the enemy can use this for purposes of deception, pretending to lay mines, sending a unit zigzagging through a strait, and making sure that the commander’s field of sensors picks this up. If the deception is successful, the commander’s subjective field is shaped incorrectly.
Dr. Waldenström works at the Institution of War Studies at the Swedish National Defence College. He is an officer in the Swedish Navy and holds an MSc in computer science and a PhD in computer and systems sciences. His dissertation focused on human factors in command and control and investigated a support system for naval warfare tasks. Currently he is working as lead scientist at the school’s war-gaming section, and his research focuses on learning aspects of war games.
22. Gibson and Crooks, “Theoretical FieldAnalysis of Automobile-Driving,” p. 457.
23. Intelligence reports from higher command are also included when constructing this operational view of the battlefield. This operational view of the battlefield is compiled by exchanging and merging sensor data, a partly manual and partly automatic process well known in all navies. The result is usually displayed as a map of the operations area overlaid with symbols representing the objects present in varying stages of classification— detected, classified, or identified.
24. T. Taylor, “A Basis for Tactical Thought,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (June 1982).
25. Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat.
26. Ibid., p. 196.
Featured Image: MEDITERRANEAN SEA (July 25, 2012) A plane captain signals to the pilot of an F/A-18C Hornet assigned to the Blue Blasters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 34 on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Joshua E. Walters/Released)
“…changes in tactics have to overcome the inertia of a conservative class; but it is a great evil. It can be remedied only by a candid recognition of each change, by careful study of the powers and limitations of the new ship or weapon, and by a consequent adaptation of the method of using it to the qualities it possesses, which will constitute its tactics. History shows that it is vain to hope that military men generally will be at the pains to do this, but that the one who does will go into battle with a great advantage—a lesson in itself of no mean value.” –Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783
Tactics are fighting techniques, and how to effectively employ the tools of war to win battles. Arguably the Navy’s largest obstacles to tactical innovation come from its lack of essential tools such as anti-ship missiles as well as the nature of its recent operations and training.
It should be fair to say that training and tactics are not developed for tools that are not equipped, and a history of scripted exercising means refined training and tactics have yet to come for much of what the Navy already has. The character of a power projection focus has divided the warfare communities of the Navy and fostered operating norms that directly inhibit the development of a network-centric warfighting doctrine.
The only U.S. military warfare community that has any history of devoting serious thought to sinking warships at more than 100 miles away using missiles is the carrier aviation community. They were the only ones with the required tools and doctrinal mandate. For everyone else the Navy violated one of the most fundamental maxims of naval warfare – to fire effectively first – by not providing serious offensive firepower to so much force structure that could have readily fielded it.1
The surface fleet is a prime example of the tactical deprivation that can come through lack of anti-ship weapons and the offensive roles they enable. Even with Harpoon and the first introduction of the anti-ship Tomahawk in the 1980s the surface Navy’s defensive focus in fleet combat remained consistent since WWII. For decades throughout the Cold War the surface fleet’s high-end warfighting proficiencies focused on anti-submarine warfare and protecting capital ships from aerial threats such as missiles. The job of sinking surface ships then mostly fell to submarines and carrier aviation. The tactical execution of the surface fleet’s primary anti-air mission became increasingly automated, a trend best exemplified by Aegis. However, a defensive, reactive, and highly automated mission focus makes for a poor foundation for learning how to fire effectively first.
The Navy’s firepower is about to experience a serious transformation in only a few short years. Comparing firepower through a strike mile metric (warhead weight [pounds/1,000] × range in nautical miles × number of payloads equipped) reveals that putting LRASM into 15 percent of the surface fleet’s launch cells will increase its anti-ship firepower almost twentyfold over what it has today with Harpoon.2 New anti-ship missiles will cause the submarine community and heavy bomber force to also experience historic transformations in offensive firepower.
The widespread introduction of these new weapons will present the U.S. Navy with one of the most important force development missions in its history. This dramatic increase in offensive firepower across such a broad swath of untapped force structure will put the Navy on the cusp of a sweeping revolution in tactics unlike anything seen since the birth of the aircraft carrier a century ago. How the Navy configures itself to unlock this opportunity could decide its success in a future war at sea. The Navy needs tacticians now more than ever.
Doctrine in Networked Warfighting
“I am here to encourage and support a new type of officer, one who is naturally inclined to operational experimentation and innovation. I foresee officers who view doctrine as a dynamic adaptive process rather than a refuge for the uninformed.”–Vice Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski
Doctrine is a common vision of warfighting, and an understanding of how to skillfully employ tactics and procedure. Naval Doctrine Publication 1, Naval Warfare, offers insight into the nature of doctrine, where “It is not a set of concrete rules, but a basis of common understanding throughout the chain of command…Doctrine is the underlying philosophy that guides our use of tactics and weapons systems to achieve a common objective….Our training and education are based on doctrine.”3 Doctrine does not culminate in a publication but in the refined intuition of the warfighter.
Doctrine aims to produce both a strong sense of independent decision-making at the unit level as well as the ability to connect as a member of a team. Net-centric warfighting is especially dependent on doctrine because of how networked capability has affected individual and group relationships. Net-centric operations are based on networked connections between many actors, yet units face the risk of losing those links. Units can be forcibly cut off from one another through electronic attack, and often need to impose silence on themselves for the sake of tactics and survivability. Connected units can call on all other sorts of actors to provide capability and information. Networked warfighting can leave one completely in the dark on the one hand and connected to a multitude on the other. Net-centric doctrine can then focus on developing common understanding for those two major types of relationships and situations.
Being effective while cut off requires an independent sense of what to do without outside help. Refined doctrine will allow a unit under emissions control to handle itself in the dark and remain faithful to commander’s intent while also knowing when it makes sense to break silence.
With doctrine a connected unit will have a common understanding with the many actors it can leverage through networked relationships. Being connected to a multitude of other actors requires having some sense of what their thought process is like, and what sorts of conditions affect their ability to contribute to the fight.
The many relationships of a networked force can easily result in congested information pathways and communications overload. This means more emissions, greater lag times, and more people requesting information or calling for help. An issue is the scale of naval warfare given how sensing and weapons can go for hundreds of miles. The area of interest for an individual warship can cover tens of thousands of square miles which promises a significant amount of overlap with many others.
Refined doctrine is absolutely necessary to streamline networked relationships and deconflict actors. Many units will be connected to the broader network, but they must resist the urge to leverage the network for every problem within their immediate area of responsibility. Command by negation and the initiative of the subordinate for a networked force could easily devolve into chaos if taken to its fullest extent. Doctrine will provide that key degree of discretion that helps a frontline unit know when its immediate situation is important enough to tap the network and call for attention from the greater force. Doctrine aims to distill what is of importance, and will help keep communications brief because networked units will have a good sense of one another’s thinking without having to ask for it.
Commander’s intent is supposed to be succinct, but the less doctrine there is the more the higher-echelon commanders can find themselves micromanaging their subordinates. The degree of refinement for doctrine can then be directly measured by how little a commander needs to convey to subordinates to successfully fulfill their intent. In his seminal “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare,” published in 1915, Lieutenant Commander Dudley Knox used the example of how doctrinal development was able to shrink an operations order from 1200 words to 44 words for a 20-ship, six-hour night maneuver.4 How many words would it take that many warships to do the same thing today?
The present culture of a command and control system heavy on reporting requirements has given the Navy an unwieldy doctrine of information overload.5 This excessive reporting culture is built in part on a level of openness and ease of communication that comes with operating in the uncontested environments of the power projection era. Being micromanaged from higher headquarters feels like the norm in today’s U.S. Navy, and where a risk-averse culture is prone to micromanaging at the expense of trust-building. But doctrine can only work to condense complex operations into simple instructions if there is a high degree of trust.
Consider the challenge of command and control for a distributed force in both an offensive and defensive context, and how doctrine could shape the nature of trust. The speed of aircraft and incoming missiles compared to the range of defensive weapons means a distributed fleet will rarely be able to mass defensive firepower from across the force in a timely way. Commanders of dispersed units will likely need to have the authority to independently prosecute their local air defense missions with great initiative in order to avoid defeat in detail.
When it comes to anti-ship firepower the relatively slow speed of warships can provide much more opportunity to network effects. If a fleet commander discovers a concentration of hostile ships he or she can use networking to generate the firepower overmatch needed to overwhelm their defenses. A fleet commander could launch and collect anti-ship firepower from a variety of platforms across the distributed fleet using engage-on-remote networking. In-flight retargeting could then be used to better concentrate salvos, ensure their accuracy, and create multi-axial angles of attack. Doctrine that seeks to make this concentration of firepower possible for a distributed force would have to take some authority away from individual units when it comes to using their anti-ship missiles. The doctrine of a distributed fleet is therefore likely to keep the release authority for anti-ship weapons at a higher level of command than defensive anti-air weapons because of key differences in the feasibility of timing and concentration.
However, even with networking, tactics should be humble in their design. The expansive nature of networked capability can produce a strong urge to develop elaborate tactics that operate on more assumptions and dependencies, such as on close coordination and timing. But tactics and operations that are too complex could easily fall apart when put to the test. The nature of low-risk scripted exercising can cause tactics and concepts of operation to suffer from this runaway complexity. Capable opposition forces are absolutely indispensable for forcing humility on the developmental process and for identifying what is reasonably simple to execute. Resilience through simplicity is an ultimate goal of doctrine.
The Navy is itself a joint force involving aviation, surface fleet, and submarine communities. But power projection missions and training have divided the Navy’s communities from one another, and where these missions allowed units to act more independently. While effective independent execution is a primary goal of doctrine the nature of low-end missions meant that independent execution was not often directed toward a common operational goal. Carrier aviation could be focused on air-to-ground strikes, surface warships could be patrolling or conducting security cooperation, and submarines could be executing ISR missions. Low-end operations and training events often require little in the way of harmonized tactics or doctrine across communities, unlike net-centric concepts.
The Navy’s current system of training and operating can hardly allow the individual communities to say they are familiar with the full breadth of capability of even their own platforms, let alone those of other communities. Every community’s training has been heavily shaped by the power projection era at the expense of high-end skills and inter-community relations.6 U.S. naval officers Fred Pyle, Mark Cochran, and Rob McFall wrote of the poor connection between the surface fleet and aviation communities with respect to anti-surface warfare in “Lessons Learned from Maritime Combat”:
“Although Navy tactical literature frequently speaks to the use of air power in SUW, there doesn’t appear to be any formal training provided to the surface warfare community…Much like the SWO community, aviators are deploying without a basic understanding of surface-combatant capabilities or missions. Generally, aviators don’t know the differences in capability between cruisers and destroyers, or the variants of the standard missile used to augment the fleet air defense mission that they train for so often…The naval aviation community states that AOMSW (air operations in maritime surface warfare) is a primary mission set—yet only minimal training is conducted in flight school and in the fleet. The majority of squadron sorties are focused on air-to-air intercepts and air-to-ground weapons…The Navy as a whole has very limited access to sea-based opposition forces (emphasis added), and the tactical aviation community is afforded only limited integration opportunities with the surface Navy…With the number of other demands in the schedule and limited underway steaming days, DDGs cannot easily go to sea for daily integrated training missions with the air wing…AOMSW is by default a distant third priority behind air-to-air employment and strike warfare.”7
This points to a significant issue within the Navy’s workup cycle. The amount of time a strike group actually trains as a strike group before deploying is a very small minority compared to how much time individual ships and squadrons train at the unit level.8 If the Navy is to heal the divide between its communities and better prepare for the high-end fight then integrated training needs to take on a far greater share of time within the workup cycle’s training phase compared to individual training.
It is hard to imagine the Navy’s warfare communities would work well to network their capabilities together if they have a poor understanding of one another’s tactics and doctrine. Unprecedented cross-community understanding is necessary if a networked doctrine is to come alive. But the great divide between the Navy’s communities will stand as a tall obstacle to any net-centric vision.
Sea Control Tactics in the Age of Missile Warfare
“As a matter of tactics I think that going out after the Japanese and knocking their carriers out would have been much better and more satisfactory than waiting for them to attack us…” –Admiral Raymond Spruance9
Many of the possibilities of combat can be dictated by relationships between time, distance, and concentration. Fundamental characteristics such as weapons range, flight profiles, and magazine capacity outline tactical options for the application of force. War at sea is especially attrition based where tactical outcomes can quickly turn based on how firepower overmatch plays out between offense and defense. Knowing how certain platform attributes and tactics influence the nature of attrition is central to designing favorable tradeoffs. By focusing on how to best optimize critical factors such as endurance, survivability, and firepower overmatch one can begin to see a framework of tactics and operations.
While there is some merit to the current construct of focusing ships on air defense and using aircraft to sink ships at range the nature of modern war at sea may preference different roles. The Navy’s scripted style of training may also suggest that tactical risk is not well-understood despite the fact that naval combat in the missile age is a staggeringly vicious form of warfare.
Any warship must account for the immutable obstacle posed by the curvature of the Earth’s surface. Radar, being a line-of-sight system, can see things further away the higher they are. But the horizon as the limit of direct sight creates a large space beneath it that cannot be sensed by a ship’s radar (unless enhanced by certain environmental conditions). This effect is known as the radar horizon. The distance from the average warship’s radar and the horizon is barely under 20 miles.10
For decades anti-ship missiles have had the ability to execute low-altitude flight profiles, often described as sea-skimming flight, to take advantage of the radar horizon for the sake of greater effectiveness. By paying a price in fuel, range, and endurance, low-flying aircraft and missiles can exploit this space to lower detectability, increase survivability, and earn the element of surprise.
It is remarkable that the words “firing from a position of minimum uncertainty and maximum probability of success” could ever be used to describe training for modern naval warfare when just 20 miles away from a ship lies a long, near-invisible space missiles can exploit to achieve surprise.11 No matter how powerful a warship is it can be forced to wait until those final moments before it can bring most of its defensive firepower to bear. The curvature of the Earth itself is one of the deadliest things to a warship.
Once a sea-skimming missile salvo breaks over the horizon it will only be tens of seconds away from impact. Defensive firepower will be reactively fired soon after an attacking salvo crosses the horizon. But by the time that first wave of defensive firepower clashes with supersonic anti-ship missiles they can already be a third of the way to their target ship.12 And anti-ship missiles can still be lethal even when they are shot down within those final miles.
As defensive firepower is brought to bear powerful missiles will be detonating against each other at thousands of miles per hour not far from the ship. Exploding missile shrapnel will spray out, often in the direction of the ship, easily shredding radar arrays and degrading the ship’s ability to defend itself. Many sensors cannot be effectively armored without diminishing their performance. The close-in weapon systems and electronic warfare suites that are critical to a ship’s last line of defense could also be easily shredded by missile shrapnel. Weapons mounted on the deck such as Harpoon missiles and torpedoes may also pose risks. This shrapnel factor is already recognized in test and evaluation where supersonic test missiles are intercepted at a minimum offset of several miles away from test platforms to help avoid flying missile debris.13This may be one reason why it is unrealistic to think a warship can sustain high kill ratios against missiles in the close-in engagement zone. Because of this exploding shrapnel factor ships should be concerned about how many nearby missile shootdowns they can withstand.
SM-6 anti-air missile intercepts a relatively small, 600lb AQM-37C test missile. Note the shrapnel. (Source: U.S. Missile Defense Agency Multi-Mission Warfare Flight Test Events)
The range advantage anti-ship missiles often enjoy over defensive firepower gives the offense a better ability to fire effectively first in the age of missile warfare. This also makes it more difficult to deal with launch platforms before they fire their payloads, otherwise known as the more preferable tactic of dealing with archers before arrows. This offensive range advantage can also convert into greater lethality and survivability for the missile salvo by allowing for more sea-skimming flight. The more a launch platform can get inside the range of its anti-ship missile, the more a payload can maximize its time flying at sea-skimming altitude to stay below the radar horizon of defending warships. Some anti-ship missiles like Harpoon sustain a sea-skimming flight path throughout their flights, but many missiles in the hands of competitors have more flexible flight profile options.14 The range advantage anti-ship firepower often has over defensive firepower therefore increases the probability of ships being forced to face sea-skimming missiles in the lethal close-in engagement zone.
The deadliness of confronting sea-skimming salvos just after they break over the horizon adds urgency to early detection and to targeting platforms before they fire their missiles. It also makes it necessary to have the capability and tactics to defeat sea-skimming missile salvos long before they break over the radar horizon of defending warships.
This makes aviation indispensable to missile defense when many anti-ship weapons intentionally fly below the radar horizon of warships in spaces only aircraft can see from above. A certain amount of airpower would have to be kept on hand just to deal with sea-skimming missiles that have the potential to travel beneath the radar horizons of defending warships. For the sake of fleet defense air wings must be very proficient at shooting down sea-skimming missile salvos, including weapons capable of flying supersonic speeds. This will also require a refined doctrinal relationship between the aviation and surface fleet communities to coordinate the air defense mission, a relationship the abovementioned authors suggest barely exists.
Only now are warships able to shoot below the radar horizon limitation using revolutionary capabilities like NIFC-CA, but this requires networked dependencies on other platforms like aircraft. NIFC-CA could prove to be a very burdensome kill chain to manage with Captain Jim Kilby describing it as “operational rocket science” and that it requires “a level of coordination we’ve never had to execute before.”15 Using aircraft to shoot missiles below the radar horizon of ships may be a much simpler kill chain to manage compared to NIFC-CA. The Navy also has probably yet to develop refined tactics and training for NIFC-CA given how new and sophisticated it is. However, using aircraft to cue shipborne firepower in any case could help keep warships relevant to the fight even with shredded radar arrays.
Defensively using the air wing to focus on defeating missile salvos may prove extremely favorable, especially from an attrition standpoint. Aircraft should be able to conduct this mission with some altitude and thus retain greater endurance. They could also likely be more proximate to the carrier rather than be asked to strike ships far forward which also converts into extra endurance. They would be able to maximize their anti-air loadout which is thousands of pounds lighter than a full anti-ship loadout, earning still more endurance.16
A squadron of F-18s fully equipped with anti-air weapons can carry over 100 anti-air missiles which is comparable to the anti-air firepower of a large surface warship. Through speed and altitude aircraft will also have far more time and opportunity to shoot down sea-skimming missiles compared to warships. Perhaps best of all, anti-ship missiles, at least for now, can pose no threat to aircraft. The cost exchange should be distinctly one sided.
The tactical characteristics of the air wing’s anti-ship mission are quite the opposite in many respects, yet this is what the carrier-centric U.S. Navy has long committed itself to.
Besides endurance, one of the greatest limiting factors of airpower is its resilience. Losing only a few aircraft per sortie could leave a carrier with a fraction of its strength after a hard day of high-end combat. Losing only four percent of aircraft per mission will result in losing 70 aircraft out of 100 over the course of 30 missions.17
Just like missiles, anti-ship aircraft will likely have to fly at sea-skimming altitudes to earn surprise and preserve survivability, but pay a severe price in range, endurance, and fuel. However, unlike aircraft, missiles are only interested in making a one-way trip. Anti-ship aircraft may also have to strike far forward of the fleet which also incurs a greater price in fuel and endurance. Low-altitude flight and closing with enemy ships can also lead to more restricted emissions.
Aircraft have to be concentrated in order to deliver large enough salvos to overwhelm the powerful anti-air defenses of modern warships. A large surface warship can carry dozens of anti-air missiles and feature many layers of defensive capability in the form of electronic warfare, close-in weapon systems, and decoys. Attacking a surface action group of a few modern destroyers could take a squadron of aircraft to field enough firepower to overwhelm shipboard defenses. This anti-ship squadron may also have to be further augmented with more aircraft dedicated to jamming, refueling, and scouting roles. A single attack on a surface action group of several large surface warships could plausibly tie up a quarter of a carrier’s strike fighters, leaving gaps in coverage elsewhere.
Using carrier aircraft to prosecute the anti-surface mission with a short-ranged anti-ship weapon such as Harpoon makes it easier for modern warships to shoot down archers instead of arrows. The shorter the range of the air-launched anti-ship missile the less attacking aircraft can disperse from one another to mass firepower effectively. This in turn dictates the extent of possible concentration and bears an effect on survivability if more aircraft find themselves within the envelope of defensive fire.
For now, the Navy’s current carrier-based anti-ship tactic could easily turn into sending concentrated groups of aircraft into the teeth of modern shipborne air defense while bleeding fuel at low altitudes and across great distances. Survivability could be substantially improved with the air-launched version of LRASM that has better range than many anti-air weapons, but it will not do as much to ease concerns over endurance and fuel. The tactic of using carrier aircraft to sink modern warships with the short-ranged Harpoon is far less favorable with respect to survivability, endurance, and attrition compared to having the air wing focus on defeating anti-ship missiles in a defensive role.
Putting long-range anti-ship missiles on warships allows the logic of attacking archers in the form of ships to extend to most of the fleet beyond the carrier. Shifting more missile defense responsibility to the air wing frees up more shipboard launch cells for anti-ship fires and other payloads of interest. Ships can provide a solid and steady wall of firepower compared to the more transient presence of aviation. The transient presence of aviation for the anti-ship mission may at first suggest a more favorably discrete operating posture for the carrier. However, the need to maintain a screen of airpower to intercept scouts and bombers for the outer air battle would still bind the disposition of aircraft to a degree.
With respect to attrition anti-ship firepower can see a far greater proportion of its missiles wasted away against defenses compared to anti-air firepower focused on shooting down missiles. This can necessitate follow-on attacks on ships. Even though ships may discharge a large portion of their anti-ship firepower in a salvo they could readily leverage their deep magazines to launch another attack rather than be forced to wait for another anti-ship squadron to make a fresh attempt. This key distinction is where the staying power of warships can prove superior to the transience of airpower with respect to sustaining attacks on well-defended ships.
A closer team between warships and aviation along the lines of these roles can be more favorable with respect to information management. Aircraft can better manage the risks of emitting through speed and maneuver, and air defense is an especially emissions-intensive fight. A ship can preserve emissions if it has aircraft to support local awareness. By conducting air defense for forward units aircraft would also be well-poised to cue offensive fires from ships, conduct in-flight retargeting as needed, and perform battle damage assessment.
Anti-ship missile fire from submarines can be an especially powerful tactic, though it may be more dependent on outside cueing. Unlike most other platforms undersea forces can easily bypass defensive screens of ships and aircraft to get in close. Putting anti-ship missiles on submarines would also significantly enhance platform survivability. Submarines would be able to fire from a distance that far outstrips torpedo range which would make their attacks much more difficult to attribute. If a ship comes under sea-skimming missile fire it may not know which sort of platform launched the attack, but if a ship finds itself under torpedo fire then it could easily reckon a submarine is close by. From a defensive perspective the threat of missile submarines unleashing sea-skimming salvos from unexpected directions and at close range could tie down more airpower for missile defense across a broad space.
A considerable amount of the fleet’s ability to manage the fight would be centered around the E-2 aircraft whose powerful radars and communications make it the Navy’s “carrier-based tactical battle management, airborne early warning, command and control aircraft.”18 A carrier fields very few of these critical command and control aircraft, usually close to half a dozen.19 Despite the fact endurance is one of the most important attributes that governs the operations of airpower the crucial E-2 command and control aircraft will finally be getting an aerial refueling capability in 2020.20 This upgrade comes over 50 years after the aircraft was introduced and despite the fact in-flight refueling was already commonplace in the aviation-centric U.S. Navy since the Vietnam War. Israel purchased the E-2 aircraft from the U.S. during the Cold War and installed an in-flight refueling capability at some point in their service lives. Now after decommissioning these aircraft an E-2 Hawkeye capable of in-flight refueling rests at the Israeli Air Force Museum.
“Sound strategy depends on a knowledge of all forces and their tactics sufficient to estimate the probabilities of winning. Thus…it will not do to study strategy and offer strategic plans without first studying in detail the forces and tactics on which those plans depend. Strategy and tactics are related like the huntsman and his dog. The hunter is master, but he won’t catch foxes if he has bought and trained a birddog.” –Capt. Wayne P. Hughes Jr., (ret.), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat
The Navy is looking to move to a more distributed warfighting construct, otherwise known as distributed lethality or distributed maritime operations.21 A major tactical and operational advantage distributed warfighting hopes to achieve is diluting the firepower and sensing of the adversary across a larger space. With respect to great power adversaries that enjoy steep land-based advantages for sea control these constructs are based in part on the hope that distribution will hurt opposing anti-access/area-denial forces more than they will hurt expeditionary forces. Like so much else in the U.S. Navy these distributed warfighting constructs hope to achieve greater effectiveness in part through affecting efficiency. The tactics suggested above are certainly guilty of this to an extent. While affecting the timely concentration of effects is a fundamental principle of warfighting, especially in attrition-centered naval combat, these distributed warfighting constructs are fundamentally incomplete without more specific techniques at the tactical level.
The tactics suggested above envision a closer relationship between carrier aviation and warships where they leverage one another’s platform advantages. It argues that the deep capacity of surface warships is better put to use for the offensive anti-ship mission, and that aviation’s speed and maneuverability is better focused on defending against missiles. This is the opposite logic of what the Navy has long subscribed to.
But the tactical analysis above is still very rudimentary. It does not attempt to account for things like electronic warfare, cyber effects, and space-based capabilities where each can be very critical in its own right. So much decisive space in a future war at sea could lie within circuits, algorithms, and computer code. These tactical ideas may be nothing more than mere speculation, and perhaps some variable that was left unaccounted for could make it all fall apart. But one couldn’t know until they tried.
The question remains as to what are the tactical deficiencies of a carrier-centric Navy that chose to starve the vast majority of its force structure of the ability to sink ships at range, and instead chose to focus perishable aviation on one of its most difficult missions. Aircraft would already be split between conducting major scouting functions, maintaining an outer screen to intercept enemy scouts and bombers, and guarding against sea-skimming threats. Concentrating airpower to sink ships at range would add enormous strain to the air wing.
The force structure of competitors is far more wholesomely armed with anti-ship weapons, but the carrier-centric U.S. Navy chose to confront these threats with offensive missile firepower coming from a sole, central source. This echoes a now familiar theme. By forcing the air wing to take on so many kinds of missions – scouting, counterscouting, outer air battle, defeating sea-skimming threats, and attacking ships – the U.S. Navy inflicted distributed lethality against itself.
9. This quote from Spruance is followed by the qualifier: “but we were at the start of a very important and large amphibious operation and we could not afford to gamble and place it in jeopardy” and was made in reference to the Battle of the Philippine Sea and defending the Saipan invasion force. However, even in its unqualified form, the quote still suffices to make a key point “as a matter of tactics.”
Caveat: Over the Horizon-Backscatter radars are not limited by the horizon by reflecting radar energy off of the ionosphere. These radars are land-based, and while they can detect contacts of interest at a great distance the fidelity is much more poor compared to line-of-sight radar systems. To see operating principles of various radars and sensors see: Jonathan F. Solomon, “Defending the Fleet from China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile: Naval Deception’s Roles in Sea-Based Missile Defense,” Thesis Defense submitted to Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Georgetown University, April 15, 2011. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.454.8264&rep=rep1&type=pdf
12. This figure is based rough calculations using supersonic missile speed, defensive missiles featuring a speed of around Mach 3 such as Standard Missile, and to discern the point they would first meet once the former crosses over the horizon. A key advantage attacking missiles will likely have is coming over the horizon at maximum speed and where defensive missiles would have to accelerate to full speed once they are reactively launched.
Excerpt: “Use of manned ships for operational testing with threat representative ASCM surrogates in the close-in, self‑defense battlespace is not possible due to Navy safety restrictions because targets and debris from intercepts pose an unacceptable risk to personnel at ranges where some engagements will take place.”
Excerpt: “In addition to stand-off ranges (on the order of 1.5 to 5 nautical miles for subsonic and supersonic surrogates, respectively), safety restrictions require that ASCM targets not be flown directly at a manned ship, but at some cross-range offset, which unacceptably degrades the operational realism of the test.”
14. For variable flight profiles of anti-ship missiles see:
“Specifically, the CNO was updated on NWDC’s development of the Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) Concept, a central, overarching operational concept, that will weave together the principles of integration, distribution and maneuver to maximize the effectiveness of the fleet Maritime Operations Centers to synchronize all-domain effects.
“DMO will describe the fleet-centric warfighting capabilities necessary to gain and maintain sea-control through the employment of combat power that may be distributed over vast distances, multiple domains, and a wide array of platforms,” explained Mark Coffman, DMO concept writing team lead, “The concept’s action plan will drive the development of these new capabilities so that fleet commanders will be able to distribute but still maneuver the fleet across an entire theater of operations as an integrated weapon system.”
Featured Image: ARABIAN GULF (Dec. 6, 2017) – The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Arabian Gulf. Theodore Roosevelt and its carrier strike group are deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of maritime security operations to reassure allies and partners and preserve the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in the region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anthony J. Rivera/Released)
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)
Nobody’s arguing that inspections aren’t important. Heaven only knows what the beam of a flashlight might find under the bunk of a warship during a zone inspection. But there must be some way to reduce the 80 or so inspections a combat unit is subjected to every 18 months and use some of that time for the study of tactics.
Why have we let our concern for tactics slip away? How can we continue to call ourselves naval officers when our attention is being constantly drawn away from what should be our main interest—besting potential adversaries in war? As a naval officer, I am by definition a person who is capable of waging and winning a war on the high seas. I have trained and studied diligently, but is it for the next conflict or the next helpful inspection? We must refocus our attention on tactics.
If the inspections themselves do not indicate a lack of faith in the system, they seem to be part of the diminishing importance of tactical thought at all levels of command. The junior officer does not perceive that his senior pays attention to tactics as a matter of routine. If a junior commanding officer is delayed from returning to home port for some tactically significant reason, he can normally still expect to have to meet all his visits, assist teams, and inspections despite the crew’s inconvenience. The commanding officer does not see a routine emphasis on tactics, and, therefore, he tends not to pass any concern down to the members of his wardroom. How often does one see the immediate superior in command stay after the most recent inspection and talk about his philosophy of the wartime employment of his units? During the last year, how much has the immediate superior, type commander, or fleet commander contributed to the fleet officers’ thought process of winning an engagement? And if progress is being made, as it is in the Sixth Fleet, it rarely starts with or is emphasized at the unit level. Of all the reports and inspections conducted, how many can a junior officer reasonably link to combat thinking?
Featured Image: U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF OPERATIONS (Aug. 10, 2018) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Alexandra Allen monitors air activity in the combat information center aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109) during a general quarters drill. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay/Released)