Monday, November 5, 2012


We’ve discussed in previous posts (here and here and here) about the lack of realistic training in the Navy.  Oddly, though, the Navy established one of the best and certainly the most famous training program of all time, namely Top Gun.  Top Gun assembled a group whose dedicated mission was to assemble and study everything known about enemy aircraft, weapons, and tactics, develop our own tactics for defeating the enemy, and then train a continual rotation of pilots to take advantage of their findings.  By all accounts, the program was a major success until the mid ‘90s when it was merged with the Navy’s strike training program.

Consider this, though …  Almost all of the information collected and taught at Top Gun was available to the pilots on their own.  In other words, the pilots in the fleet had access to everything needed to draw their own conclusions and develop their own tactics and yet it didn’t happen.  Why not?  Well, the pilots were too busy with routine training, patrols, paperwork and the thousand other things that consume a pilot’s typical day.  It was necessary to form a group whose entire day was devoted to studying the enemy because the fleet pilots simply didn’t have the time to do their own studies.  There’s also an economy of scale – no sense having every pilot in the fleet reinvent the wheel.  Of course, it was also beneficial to have a set of standardized tactics that all pilots knew instead of having each pilot develop their own with the result that no pilot would know what pilot next to them would do in combat.

The other services also offer similar dedicated adversary (Opposing Forces - OpFor) forces for realistic training such as the Air Force’s Red Flag or the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA.

The key feature to these Opfor commands is that they provide training by using platforms and tactics that closely simulate the expected enemy.

Previous posts have discussed and documented that even current leadership of the Navy, by their own admission, recognize that ships and crew are not being trained against realistic threat platforms using enemy tactics.  Simply gathering ships, splitting into two groups, and then “fighting” is not providing realistic training in recognizing and countering enemy tactics.  For the same reason that individual pilots were unable to develop their own tactics, ship’s Captains just don’t have the time to study enemy platforms, weapons, and tactics and then develop counter-tactics.  The Navy needs a standing OpFor – a Top Gun of the sea.

To the extent possible, OpFor’s use platforms that mimic the characteristics of the enemy platforms.  Instead of retiring and selling off the Perry FFGs, why not use them as simulators of enemy corvettes/frigates/destroyers?  The Meggitt Hammerheads would provide extremely realistic simulations of small boat swarms and missile boats.  The Cyclone class, which the Navy has never embraced, could simulate fast attack craft, missile boats, and corvettes.  There are plenty of used (or new) non-nuclear subs on the market that could be used to simulate enemy platforms. 

It's Got To Be Real

A standing OpFor would certainly not be a cost-free program but compared to the cost of the first multi-billion dollar ship saved as a result of superior training, the cost would be negligible.  All the platforms already exist and have been paid for.  Most are headed for retirement and scrapping so their use as OpFor platforms wouldn’t deprive the fleet of active ships.  All that would be needed is some minor upgrading and instrumenting for the role.  Even the manning requirements of the simulator platforms could be greatly scaled back through automation and the need to only man for exercises of a few days duration. 

The combination of a standing OpFor and appropriate live fire exercises would provide the most realistic and useful training possible.  It’s one thing to read a book about tactics or run through a computer simulation but it’s another to stand on the bridge of your ship watching a Hammerhead approach at 35 kts, about to crash into the side of your ship and leave a giant dye mark splashed all over the side of your ship because you didn’t honor the threat appropriately, while a drone flashes overhead that you didn’t detect in time, and knowing you’re going to be mocked by your fellow Captains (even though they wouldn’t do any better) upon your return with your ship bearing the red blotch of shame.

Before I close this discussion out, I know I’m going to have to address those of you who are already starting to type in your reply that all we need is to use simulators;  that combat takes place in the CIC, anyway, so we can train dockside in front of computers.  Well, the Air Force found that as simulator usage increased, so too did real world mishaps.  Simulators just can’t replicate the stress, adrenalin, and confusion found in the cockpit of a plane pulling G’s and with the threat of collision with other planes or the ground only seconds away.  Yeah, but that’s the Air Force;  it’s different for naval combat, right?  Wrong!  Remember the Vincennes incident where a highly trained CIC crew made every mistake possible and a few considered impossible.  Simulators largely remove stress.  Once stress is added back in, performance suffers greatly – and that’s the environment to train in! 

Don’t get me wrong.  Simulators are a great complement to, but not a replacement for, live training.

It’s time to start putting our ships and crews up against trainers who thoroughly know and can apply enemy tactics.


  1. No denying that the surface navy needs a dissimilar OPFOR. But I'd think providing and sustaining that capability organically will be a very tough sell.

    A more cost-effective option might be to 'lease' the services of a surface OPFOR from an allied navy. There is an established and successful precedent for doing so.

    USN leased services of a Swedish GOTLAND class AIP submarine for about 3 years (2005-7). They stationed it in San Diego and assigned it to Naval Mine and ASW Command as a full-time training asset.

    GOTLAND provided very valuable ASW training to deploying strike groups and P-3 dets. Detecting, localizing, and tracking a diesel submarine is a challenging target - and very different from SSN that US ASW forces typically train against.

    My point is that perhaps USN could lease surface OPFOR services from an allied navy with small-boat flotillas. The Nordic countries might be a good option.

    1. I'm not sure that very many foreign navies have excess ships that they'd be willing to lease out in sufficient quantities.

      I'm also not sure why our retiring Perrys and unwanted Cyclones wouldn't make as good a surrogates as foreign ships. They're already paid for so I'm not sure how much more cost-effective we can get than that.

      Setting the preceeding aside, though, there's still the most important aspect of this that can't be leased and that is knowledge of enemy tactics. Without a dedicated group devoted to studying enemy tactics and weapons, simply having ships to use as an enemy is of very limited value. That's why the Navy's current practice of splitting into teams is not effective.

      Did the Swedish sub come with N.Korean or Chinese diesel sub tactics? Of course not. Did we have a group that knew how to use the sub as an enemy would? I don't know but I suspect not. We need a group who knows those tactics/weapons and will apply them against ourselves.

    2. We already have plenty folks who study enemy tactics. I think what's needed are approproate plaforms for real-world training.... just not sure it needs to be provided organically.

      In terms of a standing OPFOR - I'm sure you're well aware that maintaining ships does not come for free. Particularly when they are pushing 30 years service life! And the cost of unique tools and spares to maintain a handful of 'orphan' FFGs or Cyclones would get enormously expensive.

      Your option also overlooks the single most important driver in life cycle cost - manpower. The fleet is already stretched pretty thin. Where are we going to get the extra bodies to man say a frigate or a half-dozen Cyclones?

      In terms of the allied lease option - 'excessive' allied ships might not be the right way to look at it. The allied navies get valuable training and public relations out of it as well.

      I can think of a few nations with very competent flotilla forces who might be willing to lend a small number of ships to USN for aggressor training. Norway, Sweden and Italy come to mind.

    3. I also meant to add that TOPGUN is still recognized as a highly effective program - even after the merger with NSAWC.

      However, I've read statements from pilots that the most effective OPFOR training is when allies come over to act as aggressors.

      The Israel Air Force has allegedly sent its pilots and aircraft to US exercises for that purpose - and quite literally wiped the floor with best USAF/USN/USMC has to offer.

      My point is that building an OPFOR capability organically may not be the most effective option. It certainly will not be the cheapest.

    4. I fear you're still missing the main point. We need to prepare for combat with Iranian, N.Korean, and Chinese enemies (to name the most obvious possibilities). We need to do this by going up against an OpFor that lives, breathes, and eats enemy tactics and weapons utilization practices. While there may be some marginal benefit in training against Israeli pilots, they're not who we're going to fight against. We need to train against pilots flying aircraft similar to our enemies and utilizing tactics similar to our enemies. You get this, right?

      I don't care where we get naval OpFor platforms. The important part is having them operated by people who know the enemy tactics inside and out.

      You're correct... a standing OpFor isn't cheap but it will more than pay for itself in the first ship that isn't sunk thanks to proper and effective training. Well sure, but that doesn't help us pay for it now. Fine, skip one new Burke and apply the $2B plus to an OpFor that will potentially keep dozens of ships safer in combat.

      Manpower. We don't need to man OpFor ships as if they're active warships. A minimal crew for a few days operation is all that's required. Again, a minscule cost compared to the benefit. All of the services have already decided that the benefits of standing OpFor's outweigh the cost. We simply need to extend that thinking to the surface navy. We're putting multi-billion dollar ships at risk for want of effective training.

      You say we have plenty of folks who study enemy tactics. From everything I've read, that's simply not true, at least not in any effective way. We need the Top Gun model. You might want to read Adm. Stavridis' book. It gives a pretty good picture of the level of tactical training a ship's CO receives. Nowhere does he even hint at any type of centralized, effective source of enemy tactical training. Unless you know of a group dedicated to that purpose, I've just got to conclude that such a thing doesn't exist.

  2. I get the point - and I agree with the need for dissimilar training. It's more your proposed approach with which I respectfully differ. I do enjoy the debate though.

    I'd recommend digging a bit deeper on the tactics issue than Stavardis's book. It's a passable read, although I find it a self-serving and myopic in places. Regardless, it is just one CO's published experiences from over a decade ago. And of course it is unclassified.

    There are plenty of organizations and personnel who study enemy tactics and capabilities. At the unit-level every surface combatant/squadron/submarine has an intelligence shop. The bigger ships have an entire department. Then there are ONI SABER, SPEAR and SWORD. Naval War College. Center for Naval Analysis. And there are weapons tactics instructors (WTIs) who come out of the fleet weapons schools. I was one of the latter on the aviation side, so I'm fairly confident in my assessment.

    Back to your approach - everything I've read says that we are stretching the surface fleet to its absolute breaking point. So the implication that we would strip money from a declining shipbuilding budget to fund a dedicated OPFOR strikes me as making a very serious problem worse.

    I think the reason why Navy hasn't pursued a standing surface OPFOR is that it doesn't make a lot of sense. Consider the following:

    (1) The principal threats that a modern warship faces are by-and-large not from other warships. It's from mines, submarines, coastal cruise missiles and strike aircraft. A surface OPFOR wouldn't help with training to those threats.

    (2) Our fleet is divided on two coasts - so from a practical standpoint even if you wanted to execute your concept you'd need two standing surface OPFORs.

    (3) TOPGUN works through repetition and immersion (9+ weeks). Fly, lose, learn. But thanks to our shrinking fleet there are actually very limited opportunities in the pre-deployment cycle to conduct sustained OPFOR training. So the utility is to me questionable.

    (4) I don't think you realize that at its peak TOPGUN only trained one crew from every fighter squadron. The grads brought the experience back to their squadron-mates. It wasn't a dedicated OPFOR for the entire fleet - it was a school to 'teach the instructors.' Your proposal to build an OPFOR for the entire fleet is a much bigger undertaking.

    As I've said - I think a good way to gain a cost-effective OPFOR is to look to our allies. We understand the tactics, we just need the appropriate targets at the appropriate times. Like during strike group work ups prior to deployment. We did so very successfully with the GOTLAND, which from what I've read really put our ASW forces through their paces. And it didn't require us to buy a fleet of diesel submarines!

    1. I don't doubt that there are isolated groups or individuals who look at tactics but there is no evidence in the open literature or from my (very) small sampling of conversations with serving naval personnel to suggest that the resulting tactical revelations are reaching the fleet in any coordinated, systematic fashion. In fact, just the opposite. Proceedings articles, books, and conversations suggest a lack of effective and relevant tactics and doctrine.

      You seem to be suggesting that the findings of groups/individuals are readily available to the fleet. That argument is analogous to me reading a book on baseball and thereby being qualified, ready, and able to play the game. However, without practice I won't be able to translate the writings into performance. So, too, with naval tactics. Even if the fleet is reading them they aren't practicing them. Has any naval ship(s) actually practiced the proposed tactics against an actual swarm? Not that I've heard.

      Not only do we need to practice our tactics against the anticipated enemy behavior so that they become automatic, we need to exercise to find out what does and does not work.

      Almost all of the information developed by Top Gun during Viet Nam was available to the fleet pilots individually but they didn't have the time/resources to pull it together, test it, refine it, and settle on a standard set of behaviors.

      You make a very good point that OpFor training should not be limited just to surface forces. I was discussing that only as a starting point. I agree wholeheartedly, although I don't think you were actually proposing this, that our OpFor training should encompass subs, mines, cruise missiles, and so on. Whether it's reacting to a sub threat, a cruise missile, or whatever, every CO should know exactly what every other ship is going to do against specific enemy tactics. Anything less will result in confusion. Again, the Vincennes incident is revealing. In addition to the total breakdown by the CIC crew, the other ships in the area did not know what the cruiser was going to do and vice versa.

      OpFor training is as affordable and convenient as we choose to make it. If we want if to be a priority, it will be. If not, it won't.

      There's not much more to discuss about this and we're probably at the point of diminishing returns. Clearly, you don't think an OpFor is needed. I've got no problem with that. You're entitled to your opinion and I'm certainly not going to convince everyone! I would simply leave you with the thought that the number of demonstrated "mishaps" in the fleet (Vincennes, Cole, Port Royal, the various collisions, etc.) speaks for itself as far as the ineffectiveness of Navy training. Admittedly, some of my examples go beyond OpFor and address basic seamanship but the tip-of-the-iceberg principle holds. If the Navy can't train effectively for basic shiphandling, they probably aren't training effectively for enemy tactics.

      Thanks for the discussion!

  3. Thanks for the debate. A couple of points:

    I was actually making the point that an OPFOR surface force isn't necessary. Quite the contrary; it's that the main threats that surface forces face (mines, ASCMs, diesel submarines) don't require us to invest in new ships.

    In terms of the value of training: I don't think training was the primary issue with USS VINCENNES Airbus shoot-down. The situation was driven largely by the actions of an irresponsible and overaggressive CO.

    Training would've done little to stop the attack on USS COLE, since at the time a surprise asymmetric attack was not a scenario that anyone in the Navy trained to.

    PORT ROYAL incident is debatable. Crew fatigue, poor situational awareness, and lack of experience were all causal factors.

    I think your conclusions about TOPGUN might be a bit off. Air-to-air encounters were actually few and far between during Vietnam War. The problem was that when fighter pilots encountered MiGs it was usually the first and only time!

    TOPGUN worked by rapidly exposing a select group of pilots to "dog-fighting", who then passed along to their fleet squadrons. Of note - this is same approach Navy takes now to training its weapons training instructors (WTIs).

    Lastly - in terms of exercises featuring counter small boat swarms, there is at least one very recent example (9/12).

  4. I guess we need to go a bit further.

    I'm not sure how the Vincennes incident can be interpreted as anything other than a lack of training. Captain aside, the CIC crew repeatedly misread readouts (possibly confusing range with altitude) among a host of other procedural mistakes (they weren't even dressed properly for combat on the bridge!). That's purely a training issue and supports my contention that we must train in the same stressful environment we expect to operate in, to the extent possible. That's what realistic training is for - to teach people how to operate in stressful environments so they're ready when it happens. The other ships in the area drew different conclusions about what was happening but no one knew who was in charge and should take the lead. That's purely a doctrinal training issue. The CO's behavior resulted from not training for that region and the tactics being used by the various countries.

    The Stark incident (not one of my examples) was the result of a ship operating in an area where the tactics of the players were not sufficiently understood or trained for. If Stark had been properly trained, they would have been ready rather than in standby (if even that). The exact attack profile on Stark had been performed numerous times by Iran/Iraq on tankers in that area and it was known that target discrimination was not a strong point of Iran/Iraq.

    Since the 1980s we've watched a string of asymmetric attacks on targets around the world. We completely understood that asymmetric attacks on US ships could/would be attempted wherever and whenever we gave terrorists the opportunity. If Cole was surprised, it was because we didn't train for asymmetric attacks. Every ship should undergo OpFor training in harbor/dock scenarios. One thing that such training would undoubtedly have revealed is that our ROEs were restricting our self-defense. We could/should have either changed the ROE's or refrained from docking in suspect ports if we couldn't implement sufficient protection. Again, a pure OpFor training issue.

    Port Royal, while more of a basic training than OpFor issue, was due to lost positional awareness when the GPS was unavailable (among other contributing factors). The inability to maintain positional awareness without GPS is a basic training/seamanship issue and GPS loss/jamming should be part of OpFor training so that ships aren't bothered by lost GPS.

    Your comment about Top Gun exactly supports my contention. If an actual combat encounter is only going to happen rarely then we need to be totally trained and prepared for it ahead of time and that can only come from OpFor type training.

    I'm aware of the recent training exercise but I've seen nothing about the scope of the swarm attack portion, if that's even what it was. My impression is that it was more of a screening exercise against a random single boat intruder (a patrol/policing type action) rather than a swarm attack against a warship. Do you have any more definite information on what that portion of training constituted?

    Of the dozen or so serving personnel (yeah, a very small sampling!) I've conversed with, none have participated in or even heard of swarm training. That doesn't prove the Navy hasn't conducted training but it's suggestive.

    Do our ships know how to fight off a swarm attack? Do we know how to handle a missile boat swarm attack? Have we practiced defending against a simultaneous air/missile and ballistic missile attack? Have we practiced ASW in shallow water against non-nuc subs using Chinese tactics? Do we even know what Chinese tactics are? The list goes on but you get the point. If we're doing any of this, I'm totally unaware of it.

    We can continue to chalk each incident up to bad luck, bad timing, or whatever. Or, we can recognize that our training is insufficient and that we are needlessly risking multi-billion dollar ships.

  5. I'll amplify a bit on training in general. This is not a new issue. For example, we were totally unprepared for night surface combat at the start of WWII, for example. We had not practiced for it, hadn't developed doctrine or tactics for it, and were clueless as to how to go about it.

    The Navy historically trains moderately extensively in how to operate their equipment but does not train tactically. The best we ever got was during the Cold War when we trained specifically against Soviet sub and air threats. Even then it was more a case of being forced to operate daily against actual Soviet subs and planes than any systematic training effort. The threat was all around us so we learned by doing (on the job training) rather than learning from a systematic training program.

    The Navy has certain inbred cultural weaknesses (as well as strengths!) and training is one of them. We train on our equipment rather than against enemy tactics.