Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Attack the Gaps

Breaking Defense website had an article with a title that stated (paraphrased), Marines won’t attack head-on but will find gaps.  I won’t bother citing the article because I’m not going to quote anything or even reference any information from it.  The phrase “find the gaps” is the only relevant item, for my purposes.

The Marines will find the gaps.

That seems reasonable.  Why attack the enemy’s strength when you can find the gaps?  There’s only one problem with that concept:  gaps usually exist because there’s nothing worth defending, or, conversely, worth attacking there.  A gap exists because the enemy doesn’t care about it. 

Well, sure, the gap doesn’t contain anything worthwhile but exploiting it allows us to get our forces ashore and then they can advance to the actual objective.

That seems reasonable.  Only, there’s a few problems with that concept.  First, given the long range of modern artillery, rockets, helos, cruise and ballistic missiles, and whatnot, the gap will probably be a very long way from the actual objective.  That means that we’ll have to travel/fight on land for a very long distance to get where we really want to be.  Traveling and fighting for long distances requires a very robust logistics tail.  As we’ve discussed, our current ability to supply such an endeavor is suspect, at best.  How will we get huge amounts of supplies over the beach and then transport them long distances to the advancing force?  That’s a challenge that I don’t think we’re currently equipped for or doctrinally/tactically prepared for.

Second, while exploiting the gap may allow us to bypass the enemy’s initial resistance, once we arrive at the actual objective it will, presumably, be heavily defended and we’re right back to attacking the enemy’s strength only now it will be at the end of a very long and shaky logistics trail.  Yes, we will have gotten the bulk of our forces ashore but they will be in a precarious position logistically and will be “fought out” to a degree, just having had to fight through a long distance of enemy territory to get to the objective.

The concept of a gap is almost a leftover from the days of line-of-sight combat.  If the enemy soldiers and tanks couldn’t directly see you, they couldn’t engage.  Yes, there were mortars and artillery but they still required line-of-sight contact for targeting.  In other words, the gaps were already close to the objective – just beyond line-of-sight.  Today, if you have to move fifty or a hundred miles away from the objective to find a gap, that leaves the attacking force a very long way from its actual objective, as described above.

Certainly, for smaller, less important objectives I’m sure there will be exploitable gaps that aren’t too far away but for any major objective the concept of exploiting gaps may be far more problematic than anticipated. 

One last point about gaps …  An implicit assumption about gaps and logistics is that we will be able to freely move troops, equipment, and supplies about the battlefield with helos and MV-22s.  That, in turn, contains the implicit assumption that we have aerial supremacy.  Against any peer enemy we will find that we do not have air superiority.  At best, we’ll be lucky to achieve a no-man’s land in the sky.  Our ability to move men, equipment, and supplies through the air will be severely constrained.  Remember, we’ll be fighting on enemy soil where the enemy can make use of thousands of man-portable SAMs, an established air defense network, the entire weight of the region’s air forces disbursed and operating from multiple bases, and likely against superior enemy numbers.  In contrast, we’ll be at the end of a very long logistics trail (we’ll be fighting in China, Iran, N.Korea, or somewhere far from friendly bases) with very limited and sporadic Air Force support due to lack of bases in theatre and naval aviation that will probably be fully occupied defending the fleet.  Yes, we will attack enemy bases and defense networks but the point is that our assumption of freedom of movement in the skies is invalid.

Who’s gaming this out?  Has anyone tried an exercise simulating a contested march across a hundred miles to test the logistics of this?  ComNavOps is not a land combat expert by any means but so much of the Marine assault concept seems disjointed and poorly thought out.  Perhaps all of this has been carefully conceived, planned, exercised, and proven but nothing I’ve seen indicates that is so.

Gaps?  Let’s exercise this concept before we commit to it.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Future Connectors - The Marine Corps View

As mentioned in the previous posts (see, "Out Of The Business"), CSIS hosted a Q&A session with BGen. William Mullen (1).  He covered several topics that are noteworthy and deserve some additional attention.

Mullen addressed the major limitation of the current connectors,

“Because the connectors we have, the LCACs, the LCUs, the Joint High Speed Vessel, none of those things will go into an unprotected beach.”

The consequence of that, according to Mullen, is,

“We have to have the ability to have that thing [connectors] bring us in to just outside small arms range and then get off it and swim ashore.”

That’s a major doctrinal statement there.  He’s saying that the Marines do not view the current connectors as survivable in an opposed landing, hence, the Marine’s focus on an armored amphibious vehicle (AAV/ACV/EFV/whatever).  You’ll note that this is somewhat at odds with the emphasis on aviation assault but that’s just one of many contradictory views the Marines currently hold.  If this is true, then the armored amphibious vehicle is the key to the Marine’s future (again, at odds with the aviation emphasis) and makes the decades long dithering over such a vehicle almost incomprehensible.

This statement from Mullen gives us the Marine’s view of an amphibious assault.  Connectors will transport armored amphibious vehicles to a point short of the beach and the vehicles will swim the rest of the way.  What this vision doesn’t allow for is the transport and landing of heavier assets like tanks and artillery, at least in the initial wave.  That makes the initial combat somewhat problematic and, at the very least, requires close co-ordination with Navy and aviation assets for the missing heavier punch.  Unfortunately, given the probable lack of air superiority in a contested landing against a peer, aviation support will probably be sporadic, at best, and naval support is doctrinally non-existent, at the moment.

Referring to connector alternatives, Mullen made sure to emphasize the importance of the traditional amphibious ship,

“Anything we do alternatively can’t replace any of those gray hulled ships.”

That sounds like a scripted Navy-Marine talking point!

Mullen noted that one of the significant differences between the Army and Marines is that the Marines have never used an armored fighting vehicle (AFV) whereas the Army has, in the form of the Bradley.  He gave no impression that a Marine AFV is under consideration and stated that Marines use armored vehicles as transport.  Again, a significant doctrinal point whose wisdom is highly debatable.

The Marines have requested that the LCAC replacement, the Ship to Shore Connector (SSC), be given the ability to launch AAVs or a similar vehicle while at sea rather than having to wait to get to the beach since the SSC is not going to land on a hostile beach.  That makes sense given the previous statements.

Mullen addressed a question about interim AAV upgrades and responded by stating that an upgrade program is in progress but won’t start “turning wrenches” until 2019.  I’m not an expert on combat vehicles but a relatively simple upgrade program requiring 5 years to even begin seems absurd.

The Marine’s plans for the near future seem to be centered on the ACV 1.1/1.2.  He stated that the ACV 1.1 would be purchased in small quantities to experiment with and then the 1.2 version would incorporate the lessons learned and constitute the bulk of the procurement. 

Mullen had this to say about the focus on the ACV over the AAV,

“Frankly, we had such problems with our AAVs in Iraq that we stopped using them outside the gate and we never even took them to Afghanistan.”

Well that’s interesting!


EFV/ACV - Key To The Future?


Mullen noted the relationship between aviation based assault and ground/amphibious assault.  He acknowledged that the aviation assets had only a limited ability to transport vehicles and then only in a permissive environment.  The difficulty in achieving a suitable permissive environment provides the rationale for the continued need for a ground/amphibious capability, according to him.

Addressing the general need for an AAV type vehicle, Mullen stated,

“To us, we see the ability to have an independent deployer that swims ashore without any connector as a service defining capability.”

Mullen addressed the connector issue shortcomings,

“With the route we’re taking, LCUs and LCACs probably aren’t going to be enough.  What else is there out there?  What else can be done?”

So, the Marines apparently recognize a serious shortcoming but are doing little about it beyond a few paper studies and investigations.  With such a significant problem, one can’t help but wonder why the Marines budget and focus is so skewed to the aviation side especially given the previous statement recognizing the vulnerability of aviation transport.

He went on to cite the JHSV with an at-sea ramp capability as an option that the Marines are requesting.  The JHSV would transport vehicles to just outside small arms range and discharge the vehicles into the sea.  Of course, the JHSV is built to purely commercial standards and operating it to just outside small arms range still leaves it squarely in rocket and missile range.  That’s a questionable use of the JHSV.

Of course, one could ask why, if the Marines see the combination of LCAC and LCU as insufficient, are we pursuing a simple replacement of the LCAC and a perhaps somewhat more capable LCU rather than far more capable and robust replacements that would be sufficient?

Responding to a question about the vulnerability of connectors to shore based missiles, Mullen noted that the Marines would operate with the Navy and Air Force who would suppress shore based anti-access (A2) fire.  However, he then went on to say that the Marines see their role as getting a “bubble” of capability ashore to aid in the counter A2 operation.  That’s fine, but there’s a Catch-22 at work:  how do the Marines get ashore to aid in the counter A2 operations if the counter A2 operations haven’t yet succeeded?  - and, if the counter A2 operations have succeeded enough to get the Marines ashore then their assistance in the counter A2 operations isn’t really needed.  He did not acknowledge that logical inconsistency.  He also cited the V-22 as aiding in getting the Marines ashore to help with the counter A2.  Again, he did not address the vulnerability of the V-22 to air defenses in a counter A2 environment.  I’m sorry but the Marines doctrine and concept of operations seems heavily dependent on wishful thinking!

Finally, although this was not his closing statement, it should have been.


“As the fiscal environment gets more constrained, we have to think harder.”

Please, Marines, think a LOT harder than you currently are!!


(1) http://csis.org/event/future-amphibious-connectors-getting-ship-shore, Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Future Amphibious Connectors:  Getting From Ship To Shore”, Brig. Gen. William Mullen, Director, Capabilities Development Directorate, 15-Jul-2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

Can Anyone Talk To The F-35?

ComNavOps at one time reported on a communications problem associated with the F-35.  Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to get any details or even a vague understanding of the scope of the problem.  Well, finally, I’ve found a bit more information and it’s an eye-opener. 

To summarize and simplify, apparently the F-22 and F-35 each have their own unique communications equipment, protocols, and formats.  They can talk to other F-22s and F-35s, respectively, but not to other platforms nor to each other, at least not without compromising their stealth.  They seem to have the ability to use Link 16 to talk to other platforms but only at the expense of compromising their stealth.

You’ll recall that the F-35 has been advertised as being able to penetrate air defense networks and act as an information node for all other platforms.  That’s a nice concept except that apparently they can’t actually communicate without giving away their position.

From an Aviation Week website article come these statements (1).  The article was written from an F-22 and Air Force focus but the F-35 issues are common for the Navy’s versions of the F-35.

"... the service has two stealthy fighters—each costing more than $100 million per aircraft—that cannot effectively share data with the fleet (or each other) without compromising the very stealthiness that drove up their cost."

"At issue, however, is a decades-long haphazard approach to data links. By design, the F-22 was developed to communicate only with other F-22s via the in-flight data link (IFDL)."

"The single-engine F-35, by contrast, uses the Multi-function Advanced Data Link (MADL) system, which employs a different waveform and retains its low probability of intercept/low probability of detection (LPI/LPD) by using directional antennas and operating over short distances ..."

Unfortunately, no other platform has MADL and no other platform can receive the communications from it.

"The F-22 can receive on Link 16 and the F-35 can both transmit and receive on the system, but in terms of detection, data delivery via Link 16 is “like turning on a big light bulb in the sky,” an industry source says."

The F-22 apparently can’t even transmit on Link 16!

This next statement is a stunner.

"The F-22 issue has already become a hindrance. It was considered for use in the Libya campaign in 2011, but planners were stymied by an inability to deliver data collected by the F-22s back to other forces, according to one industry source, forcing the Air Force’s premier asset to sit on the sidelines."

Our most advanced fighter aircraft sidelined because it can’t talk to anyone!

"The Air Force had planned to equip all aircraft with the F-35 MADL to facilitate fleetwide connectivity, but its cost proved prohibitively high."

Presumably, that applies to the Navy as well.

Well, there you have it.  The F-35 is intended to be a data node for the rest of the platforms in its region and yet it can’t communicate with them while retaining its stealth. 

Do you recall the LCS MCM module that was intended to use the helo to tow the MCM equipment but it turned out that the helo had insufficient power and couldn’t do it?  We all wondered why someone didn’t check that on day one of the development program?  Well, this is kind of the same thing.  We designed a stealthy aircraft that would be a data node for the entire fleet (air and sea) and yet no one thought to ask whether it could actually talk to the fleet and remain stealthy? 

Seriously, is it a requirement to be brain dead before you can manage these programs or can you take the job and then have a lobotomy?


(1) http://aviationweek.com/defense/air-force-fifth-fourth-plan-questioned , “Air Force Fifth-to-Fourth Plan Questioned”, Amy Butler, 17-Jul-2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Take Away The Gators

All right …  we just read in the previous post that the Marines no longer consider themselves in the opposed amphibious assault business.  Let’s repeat that quote from Brig. Gen. Mullen.

“Our emphasis right now, in particular, especially with the, in the current fiscal environment, our Commandant’s priorities right now are crisis response at the expense of major combat operations.  If we absolutely had to do it we certainly would but it would be a stretch.  Right now, we’re focusing on crisis response.”

If the Marines are out of the amphibious assault business then why do they still claim to need 38 large hull amphibious ships?  If we’re not doing the big amphibious assaults, logic suggests that we can eliminate many of the amphibious ships.  Sure, we’d probably want to retain a handful for lower end operations.  Around 18 amphibious ships would allow us to operate two MEUs, one each in the Atlantic and Pacific.  A three ship ARG requires nine ships to keep three deployed, hence, the total of 18.  Quite a drop from 38 and quite a potential savings! 

The Marines can’t have it both ways.  If they’re out of the business then they don’t need the assets, resources, and budget.  In fact, if they’re dropping down to light aviation-based assault one could legitimately wonder if the Army’s aviation assault capabilities aren’t sufficient and superior.

The Marine Corps desperately needs to get its act together or step aside and let the Army take over their role.  Alternatively, the Army is pushing hard to operate from Navy ships and may wind up pushing the Marines aside while the Corps spends its time dithering over the AAV/ACV/EFV/whatever and blindly pursuing the F-35B.

Note:  This is not my position.  This is simply the logic of the situation that the Marines and the Navy have created.

Wake up, Marines!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Out Of The Business

ComNavOps has, for some time now, offered the observation that the Marines were out of the opposed landing business and that they had devolved to a light infantry force capable only of short duration operations at the low end of the combat spectrum.  Predictably, many readers have taken issue with that observation.  The thing is, it’s an observation not an opinion.  There’s nothing to agree or disagree with.  It is what it is.  The lack of survivable connectors combined with the lack of heavy transport capability dictates the overall capability, or lack thereof.  You can argue about what the Marines should or should not be but there’s not really any way to dispute what they actually are.

In any event, we now have the final, official word for those of you who refuse to accept what you see.

CSIS hosted a question and answer session with Marine Brig. Gen. William Mullen on the topic of amphibious connectors (1).  During the discussion, Gen. Mullen made this statement regarding Marine Corps priorities,

“Our emphasis right now, in particular, especially with the, in the current fiscal environment, our Commandant’s priorities right now are crisis response at the expense of major combat operations.  If we absolutely had to do it we certainly would but it would be a stretch.  Right now, we’re focusing on crisis response.”

There you have it.  The Marines are out of the opposed landing business.  They are a very light combat, raiding, embassy protection/evacuation, and humanitarian assistance organization.  You can debate what they should be but it’s clear what they are and are not, by their own admission.



(1) http://csis.org/event/future-amphibious-connectors-getting-ship-shore , Brig. Gen. William Mullen, Director, Capabilities Development Directorate, Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Future Amphibious Connectors:  Getting From Ship To Shore”, 15-Jul-2014

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Congressional UCLASS

It’s not often that ComNavOps praises or defends Navy leadership but this is one of those moments.  I’ve posted that the Navy’s UAV/UCLASS/UCAV program is an example of a well run program (see, "The Navy's Best Run Program").  It is proceeding in reasonable steps which are providing progress and cost restraint simultaneously.  The program has not given in to PowerPoint hype and run-amok technology insertion.  The Navy has recently initiated the process of requesting proposals from industry for the next step in UCLASS development which will focus on surveillance (ISR) capabilities.  Unfortunately, this reasonable step has met with resistance from a Congress that appears to want a do-everything, stealthy, deep penetration strike UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike).

Rather than continue to develop the UCLASS in measured steps while exercising fiscal restraint and responsibility, Congress wants the Navy to once again try to leap a generation of technology.  You’ll recall that previous attempts to leap generations have given us the LCS, JSF, and Ford among other notable failures.

DoD Buzz website posted an article on the subject and summed the controversy up,

“The thrust of the debate centers around [whether] the platform can adapt over time or whether features like stealth and electronic attack need to be engineered into the original design at from the start. Forbes (ed.: Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee of the HASC) wants those capabilities from the beginning even though it will increase the drone’s initial price tag.”

Forbes recognizes the impact on cost of trying to leap ahead and yet wants to do it anyway.  History tells us with absolute certainty that such an effort will derail the steady progress of the program and result in a bloated, failed platform mired in cost overruns and schedule delays.

The subcommittee does raise one noteworthy point.  Language from the budget markup of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Randy Forbes states,

“The disproportionate emphasis in the requirements on unrefueled endurance to enable continuous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to the carrier strike group, a capability need presumably satisfied by the planned acquisition of 68 MQ-4C Tritons ..."

There is a bit of an apparent duplication at work.  The two unmanned systems would seem to be filling the same niche.  Not having seen an operational concept for either of the systems I can’t evaluate the apparent duplication.  Perhaps they’re going to perform similar but different roles.  On the other hand, the Navy’s history of questionable decision making doesn’t exactly rule out a complete and unnecessary duplication!  A third alternative is that the Navy views the requested UCLASS as simply a developmental step intended to prove out integration in an air wing while still getting a degree of usefulness out of the aircraft.  If so, that would be a perfectly reasonable approach.  I haven’t seen any indication of the quantity of UCLASS aircraft the Navy wants.  If they only want a few, that would suggest they view it as a developmental step.  If they want dozens, that would suggest they view it as a finished product and would legitimize the duplication question.

The article goes on to state,

“While not willing to comment publicly on plans for stealth or low-observability for UCLASS, Navy program officials have consistently maintained that the program’s requirements do call for a weaponized strike platform as well as an ISR vehicle.  However, the weapons capability is something that is described as incremental, meaning it will be engineered into the platform over time, Navy officials explained.”

Again, this type of incremental approach is perfectly reasonable and ComNavOps just recently stated that the JSF should have been developed this way (see, "F/A-18 Hornet - An Evolultionary JSF?").

As I’ve stated before, the UCLASS program is a rare example of a well run program.  I would hate to see it become the flying LCS with lots of unattainable technology crammed in for no good reason.  Let’s be realistic.  UAVs are crashing constantly.  They’re not exactly a finished product, yet.  We don’t know what the real world difficulties of trying to operate UAVs over extremely long distances in an electromagnetically challenged environment are.  We don’t know what the real world difficulties of trying to operate an unmanned aircraft in and around a carrier are.  It would be foolish and fiscally unwise to attempt to leap ahead as Congress wants.  We need to walk for a while before we attempt an all-out sprint.  The Navy should bring a few UCLASS aircraft into an airwing and gain some operational experience and understand the technological difficulties before committing to the B-2 bomber version of UCLASS. 

Let’s not repeat the LCS fiasco.  Hold your ground, Navy.  ComNavOps stands with you on this one.


(1) http://www.dodbuzz.com/2014/07/10/pentagon-reviews-uclass-strike-capabilities/, DoD Buzz, Kris Osborn, "Pentagon Reviews UCLASS Strike Capabilities", 10-July-2014

Friday, July 11, 2014

DoN Transformation Plan

I recently wrote a humor piece that mocked the priorities of the Navy by placing all the non-warfighting requirements at the top of the list.  Well, darn if the Navy didn’t just come out with their own actual list that reads almost the same as my comedy one!  From the Department of the Navy, Transformation Plan, 2014-2016, here is the list of official DoN priorities.


1. Take care of our people
2. Maximize warfighter readiness
3. Lead the nation in sustainable energy
4. Promote acquisition excellence and integrity
5. Proliferate unmanned systems
6. Drive innovative enterprise transformation


Taking care of our people is laudable but it shouldn’t be the Navy’s top priority.  Warfighting is, because that’s the Navy’s reason for existence.  It’s as simple as that. 

Well, hey, you say, at least warfighting is number two.  Unfortunately, if you read the explanation in the document, maximizing warfighter readiness is actually about sizing the fleet rather than combat training, tactics, or any other actual warfighting activity.

The number three priority is to lead the nation in sustainable energy?!  Are you kidding me?!  In what alternate universe is leading the nation in energy development one of the Navy’s responsibilities let alone a top priority? 

Did you catch number five?  Proliferate unmanned systems.  The explanation states that the Navy will proliferate unmanned systems across all areas, responsibilities, and activities.  You’ll note that there is no caveat like “if it makes sense” or “if it actually enhances combat effectiveness”.  Nope, we’re going to do it regardless;  just because.

Finally, here’s a paragraph from the summary section.

“The FY14-16 DON Transformation Plan translates the Secretary of the Navy’s strategic guidance into a blueprint for the entire department to follow. Changing culture, wider use of analytics, and effective governance will enable the department to transform business operations and to reform the institution so we continue to provide the nation a vital service through global naval presence.”

Not a single word about warfighting.

This sounds an awful lot like one of my comedy offerings but it’s not.  That’s sad beyond belief.  The incompetence that this document codifies is staggering.  I weep for my Navy.