Monday, January 27, 2020

Knee Jerks and Paradigms

The knee jerk reactions to the recent destroyer post (see, "The Missing Destroyer") have highlighted the phenomenon of paradigms.  So many people instantly decided that the specified weapons and sensors couldn’t fit on a destroyer with the specified size.  Why?  For no reason other than because they’re not used to seeing densely packed ships.  Today’s ships are, literally, designed for almost everything but combat.  They’re designed to be roomy and comfortable for 6-8 month deployments with every imaginable crew comfort and convenience.  They’re floating hotels with a few weapons attached as an afterthought.  Our expectation, our paradigm, today, is comfort not combat.  It’s that paradigm that made so many people instantly claim the proposed destroyer couldn’t be built with the specified weapons.

Armor was another knee jerk reaction.  So many people think that if we add armor the ship will either sink outright under the weight or, at best, be reduced to a 5 knot barge, nearly unable to move.  Those people are ignoring the fact that every WARship built in WWII had heavy armor, appropriate for their size, and yet managed to not only float but sail around at 30+ knots and carry a weapons fit that puts our modern designs to shame and all on hulls that were much smaller than today’s ships.  Armor can be done.  We routinely did it.  We’ve just forgotten that it can be done because our paradigm, today, is unarmored ships.  It’s that paradigm that made so many people instantly claim the destroyer couldn’t be armored.

Crew comfort was also a popular knee jerk reaction.  Many people seem to feel that if today’s crew doesn’t have luxurious five star accommodations they’ll either die or flee the ship.  The fact that tens of thousands of sailors fought for four years in WWII under spartan conditions seems lost and forgotten.  We not only managed to operate ships with minimal crew comforts but we actually won an entire war while doing so!  It’s only today’s paradigm of cruise ships masquerading as WARships that have conditioned people to think luxury comforts are necessary.  It’s that paradigm that made so many people instantly claim the proposed destroyer couldn’t be crewed with only minimal comforts.

Paradigms … they really restrict our thinking, don’t they?

Let’s try a paradigm-breaking exercise.  Let’s imagine taking a WWII Fletcher and simply replacing its weapons with modern equivalents.  Specifically,

  • Leave 5” gun mounts number 1 and 5
  • Replace 5” gun mounts number 3 and 4 each with a 8-cell VLS
  • Replace 5” gun mount number 2 with a CIWS
  • Replace the aft 40 mm with a CIWS
  • Replace the 4x port/starboard midships 20 mm guns with a SeaRAM port/starboard
  • Replace the torpedo tubes between the stacks with 2x 8-cell VLS
  • Leave the aft set of torpedo tubes
  • Replace the port/starboard deck edge depth charge launchers with an RBU port/starboard
  • Replace the bridge top fire control/range finder with a TRS-3D radar
  • Replace the stern depth charge racks with a towed array sonar

Fletcher Class Destroyer - Visualize the Modern Replacements

Hey, that’s everything I specified for the modern destroyer except for the hangar and flight deck!  And all on a 376 ft hull !  With an additional 50-60 ft to play with, as specified for the modern destroyer design, and a little rearranging (weapons on top of the hangar, for example, as on the Perry and Burke) we can easily accommodate the hangar and flight deck.

And, we still had the 2x forward 20 mm gun spaces that we can use for still more weapons/sensors!  Hmm … I may have oversized the spec on the modern destroyer length!

Further, a modern destroyer would have a wider beam than the 39 ft wide Fletcher – probably something around the 45 ft beam of the Perry class (Burkes have a 66 ft beam).  That gives even more space for weapons.  We could probably fit the 32 VLS cells in the space of the forward torpedo tubes and retain the 5” gun mounts number 3 and 4 – everything I specified plus two additional 5” guns for a total of 4 !!!!!

You see what can be achieved if you’re not constrained by paradigms?  Anytime you have an instantaneous reaction (especially a negative one), stop and ask yourself why?  It might be for a good reason but often it’s because you’re subject to a paradigm that you didn’t even realize you had. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Missing Destroyer

One of the key elements of a balanced and effective surface navy is completely missing from the US Navy force structure and that is a true destroyer.  Yes, the Navy calls its Burkes destroyers but we’ve previously noted that Burkes are not functional destroyers – they’re the modern cruiser/battleship in that they are closely tied to carrier and amphibious escort duty in the anti-air (AAW) role.  Given their cost ($2B each) and value (Aegis AAW), no sane commander is going to risk them in the anti-submarine (ASW) role.  Being tied so closely to the carrier, they are also not a tactically flexible and useful anti-surface (ASuW) asset.

What is missing, and needed, is a true destroyer that can provide useful and effective ASW and ASuW.  Thus, the functions of a true destroyer include:

  • Extended layer ASW escort for carriers, amphibious, and surface groups
  • Independent attack groups (Guadalcanal being an example)
  • Picket line
  • Heavy ASuW (analogous to the WWII Fletcher heavy torpedo fit)
  • Higher end convoy escort

ASuW – This is the main function of a modern destroyer just as it was in WWII.  The WWII heavy torpedo fit is replaced by heavy anti-ship cruise missiles (AGM-158C LRASM) although a heavy torpedo fit is also retained and would prove a useful weapon against merchant shipping and in close surface encounters, should those happen.  As in WWII, destroyers would operate in squadrons, able to mass their firepower for effective anti-ship strikes.

The flexibility of not being intimately tied to carriers allows the destroyer (squadron) to act independently in the anti-surface role, conducting sweeps, patrols, raids, and interdiction.  The higher risk of such operations is justified by the lower cost of the ships.

One could also add a single Burke to a destroyer squadron to act as a destroyer leader and provide higher end AAW protection.

ASW – While the main responsibility for open ocean carrier, amphibious, and surface group ASW protection lies with the destroyer escort, the destroyer provides the complementary higher end, close up ASW capability as well as providing helicopters to support the destroyer escort’s ASW efforts.  Not being tied to the high value unit’s AAW needs, like the Burke is, the destroyer can leave the group to prosecute submarine contacts, if needed.  It should be noted that the destroyer is built from the first rivet to be an ASW platform with acoustic isolation of all machinery, built in quieting, Prairie/Masker, and whatever other ASW-specific quieting is available.

AAW – The destroyer is not intended to provide area AAW protection.  It’s AAW capability is limited to medium range ESSM surface-to-air missiles for self-defense and local area protection for vessels in fairly close proximity.  With no need to provide area AAW protection, there is no need to mount an expensive Aegis/AMDR radar and combat suite, thus saving significant cost.

To summarize, from the blog Fleet Structure page, the destroyer’s main features are:
  •  2x 5” gun
  •  2x Phalanx CIWS
  •  2x SeaRAM
  •  32x Mk 41 VLS (ESSM, VL-ASROC, LRASM)
  •  4x 21” torpedo
  •  2x RBU-ish ASW rocket depth charges
  •  2x MH-60R ASW helo
  •  TRS-4D radar
  •  Hull mounted multi-frequency sonar
  •  Towed array

From the preceding discussion, we can see that the Concept of Operations (CONOPS) for the destroyer is two-fold, as ever-so-briefly described below:

1. Escort - The destroyer is used to expand the escort (AAW and ASW) coverage area with significant and effective firepower and capability without risking high value, close escort Burkes.  Operating in the middle zone between the outer ASW destroyer escorts and the inner AAW Burkes, this adds an additional layer of protection around the escorted vessels and expands the sensor coverage area.  The expanded coverage area enables earlier warning and engagement of attacking aircraft, ships, subs, and missiles.

One of the key aspects of the escort concept is numbers.  Destroyers must be deployed in sufficient numbers to provide effective coverage and to be mutually supporting.  A carrier group, for example, would require ten or more destroyers.

2. Independent Operations - Destroyer squadrons allow for effective anti-surface sweeps and operations, again without risking higher value Burkes, while maintaining a formidable amount of firepower and a reasonable amount of AAW self-protection.  While a destroyer squadron is not sufficient to conduct a sweep of the South China Sea, by itself, against the entire Chinese military, a squadron is powerful enough to conduct peripheral or supporting operations while being capable of a reasonable degree of self-defense. 

Unlike a solitary ship engaged in the Navy’s idiotic distributed lethality, which is subject to isolation and defeat in detail, a destroyer squadron has the firepower to constitute a significant offensive threat while presenting a challenging defensive capability that is sufficient to give an enemy pause.

At this point, readers may be asking, ‘how is this different than the frigate that ComNavOps is always arguing against’?  The answer is that, on the surface, the destroyer does spec out somewhat like a modern frigate.  However, the deeper answer reveals that there are significant differences:

CONOPS – The Navy envisions their frigate as a jack of all trades, continually deployed, running around and accomplishing little.  The problem is that the Navy has not developed a CONOPS for the frigate whereas I’ve laid out a very specific, and limited CONOPS for the destroyer.  The destroyer CONOPS requires significant numbers of ships in order to be effective whereas the Navy is only planning on building 20 frigates – totally insufficient.  The destroyer CONOPS emphasizes a very heavy anti-surface fit as opposed to the Navy’s frigate.  The greatest overlap in the two ships lies in the ASW role and, in this, they are reasonably equivalent.

Combat – The destroyer, totally unlike the Navy’s frigate, is built for combat.  To that end, it will have WWII levels of armor, as appropriate for its size (1.5”-2” armored guns, 1”-2” hull armor, 1”-1.5” deck armor, internal armored command (CIC) space, armored VLS, etc.). 

The ship will be built to take damage and continue fighting.  This includes characteristics such as healthy weight reserves, extremely good stability (metacentric height), excessive buoyancy reserve (recall the Navantia/Norwegian frigate that sank so quickly from such minor damage? – that won’t happen with this ship), state of the art damage control design, redundancy and separation of key components, etc.  This is not a ship that will go down easily and, if it does go down, it will do so while continuing to fight.

Finally, we must consider the issue of cost.  While I’ve stated repeatedly that cost cannot be the controlling factor in ship design, neither can it be totally ignored.  The goal of intelligent ship design is to build in the MINIMUM capability that can accomplish the CONOPS, rather than trying to build in every capability ever conceived, as modern ship designers do.

All of the above is tremendous but unless it can be done for a reasonable cost, it won’t be feasible.  So, what would a destroyer cost? 

First, it is necessary to accept that this is a warship, not a cruise ship.  This is not a ship to send on worthless 6-10 month deployments.  Therefore, the ship would have minimal crew comforts.  All available space would go directly to weapons and supporting functions.

The starting point for cost estimating is the Burke which costs around $2B, depending on specific version and acquisition time frame.  The major cost adjustments to the Burke would be:

Radar – Substituting a TRS-3/4D type radar for the Burke’s Aegis/AMDR/BMD would save $200M-$300M in radar, supporting utilities, computers, and software.

Size – The destroyer would be smaller than a Burke (510 ft long).  Relevant comparative data points would be the Forrest Sherman DD class at 418 ft long, the Adams DDG class at 437 ft, and a modern frigate such as the F100 (Navantia) FFG family at 481 ft.  The F100 is a bit oversized with excessively large flight deck area (see a plan of a Ticonderoga or Spruance to see what the flight deck area should be) and a greatly oversized superstructure to accommodate advanced radars.  The conceptual model for the destroyer would be the WWII Fletcher with its minimalist superstructure and no-frills construction.  The overall size of the destroyer would be around 430 ft.  As a very crude approximation, the 440 ft length is 84% that of a Burke.  Thus, the Burke cost would scale down to $1.7B based on a linear scaling of size and cost.  I recognize that’s not how cost works but it provides an idea of the savings due to size.

Of course, as size decreases, other aspects also decrease resulting in further cost savings.  For example, smaller engines, smaller propellers, smaller air intakes and exhausts all result in reduced costs.  With smaller propulsion equipment goes reduced manning which means smaller berthing spaces which, in turn, means smaller galleys, food storage, water storage, etc.

The other significant size decrease would be in the superstructure.  Modern ships have hugely increased the size of their superstructures since WWII, presumably in pursuit of stealth shaping.  This destroyer would retain stealth shaping where possible but it would return to the conceptual model of WWII ship design and hugely reduce the size of the superstructure.  This, alone, improves the stealth by simply removing superstructure – the best stealth there is, is non-existence!  The conceptual model for the superstructure would be the WWII Fletcher with its minimal superstructure.  By greatly reducing the size of air intakes and exhausts, eliminating giant radar arrays, and placing command spaces below the main deck (the destroyer has minimal crew comforts, remember), we can significantly reduce the size of the superstructure.

We see then, that a destroyer would be significantly cheaper than a Burke due to reduced size, reduced crew comforts, greatly reduced radar fit, smaller superstructure, etc.  My guesstimate on the cost is $800M.

The Navy desperately needs balance in its fleet composition instead of the all-Burke fleet we have now.  We need balance in ship types, roles, cost, risk-aversion, and capabilities.  Until we get that, we have a limited fleet that is heavily skewed toward expensive, risk-averse ships which makes for an ineffective combat fleet.

Bring back the missing destroyer!

Monday, January 20, 2020

Pacific Reforger

As you know from your history, when the Soviet Union was a threat, one of the major challenges facing the US was the rapid reinforcement and resupply of forces in Europe.  The solution arrived at was a massive air and sea lift operation referred to as REFORGER.  Large annual exercises were conducted during the Cold War to ensure that we had and maintained that capability.  Of course, once the threat of the Soviet Union was gone, the need for REFORGER disappeared and the exercises were suspended.

Today, with the threat of China and the need to wage a war thousands of miles from the US mainland or any substantial US base, the challenge of reinforcing and resupplying Pacific forces exists.  The parallel between this Pacific resupply effort and the earlier REFORGER seems obvious. 

If anything, the Pacific resupply is a much bigger challenge than REFORGER.

Distance is one significant difference.  The REFORGER distance from, say, New York to Le Havre (France) is 3,520 miles.  By comparison, the distance from, say, San Diego to Guam is 6,183 miles.  Thus, a Pacific REFORGER has to travel around 2,500 more miles than the original REFORGER. 

Another difference is that convoys from the US to Europe had the entire continent to land at and had the support of multiple countries when they arrived.  The actual destination was well known.  A Pacific REFORGER will have very limited choices of landing locations and, currently, we don’t even know exactly where would need to provide resupply (will Guam even be functional after the start of a war?).  This makes pre-planning difficult, to say the least.

Despite the difficulty, we absolutely need to come to grips with the need for a Pacific REFORGER and begin planning and practicing for it.  The recent US Transportation Command logistics surge exercise was an eye opening disappointment and should serve to drive home the need for annual large scale resupply exercises to the Pacific.

On a closely related note, the US is planning to conduct a modern version of European resupply with Exercise Defender-Europe 20.  As explained on the US Army Europe website,

Exercise DEFENDER-Europe 20 is the deployment of a division-size combat-credible force from the United States to Europe, the drawing of equipment and the movement of personnel and equipment across the theater to various training areas.

U.S.-based equipment will leave from ports in four states and arrive in six European countries. This will require the support of tens of thousands of service members and civilians in multiple nations. 

DEFENDER-Europe 20 is the largest deployment of U.S.-based forces to Europe for an exercise in the more than 25 years. (1)

From the Defender-Europe 20 Fact Sheet: (1)

  • 20,000 U.S. service members from the continental U.S. deploying to Europe
  • 13,000 pieces of equipment drawn from the Army Prepositioned Stock
  • 9,000 U.S. service members based in Europe participating
  • 7,000 Army National Guard Soldiers from 12 states
  • 4,000 km traveled across 12 convoy routes
  • 750 U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers participating 

Interestingly, the Army also plans to conduct what appears to be a greatly scaled down version of Defender-Europe 20 for the Pacific, Defender–Pacific 20. (2)

… U.S. Army … is aiming to practice rapid deployment from the continental United States to the Pacific.

The plan is to bring over a division headquarters and several brigades over the course of a 30- to 45-day period along with their enablers … (2)

The time period is extended and there is no mention of any large scale movement of equipment.  There is also no suggestion that the movement would be conducted via convoys as would occur in a real war.  The wording hints that the movement would be a ‘peacetime’ transportation exercise using leased commercial flights although this remains to be seen.

As we noted, a resupply effort for the Pacific has the paramount question of where to send the supplies.  The Army has this to say on the subject,

The exercise will consist of many things the Army has not practiced at such a large scale, Brown [Gen. Robert Brown, the commander of U.S. Army Pacific] said. Forces will be in countries like the Philippines and Thailand, and they will likely work with other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. (2)

The problem with this is the obvious question of whether practicing delivering and dispersing forces throughout the region is really reflective of a what a realistic strategy would be.  A very good argument could be made that doing so would simply be setting forces up for isolation and defeat in detail.  It is also quite debatable whether any of the proffered sites would actually be politically available to the US in a war with China.  It is quite possible (maybe even likely) that the mentioned countries would attempt to remain neutral in a war and would refuse to allow US use of their territory.  That being the case, why would we practice something that might not (likely would not) be possible in a real war?

While the difficulties are obvious (choosing deliver sites, for example), we should embrace the challenge and begin planning and exercising realistic wartime resupply movements.  These exercises should include convoy defense against subs, aircraft, missiles, and surface ships as well as convoy defense at the delivery sites as they may well be in range of enemy attack.

We have got to start losing our peacetime mentality and begin embracing full scale, peer war.  As we’ve noted several times in past posts, it is discouraging that the Army is the only service that seems to be starting to face up to the prospect of peer war.  There is much work to do to prepare for possible war with China and the Navy is far behind the curve.  The Navy needs to wake up and get ready.


Sunday, January 19, 2020

Carrier To Be Named For Miller

The Navy has announced that one of the upcoming Ford class carriers will be named after Doris Miller (1) who was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions at Pearl Harbor.  This is a bad action on the part of the Navy as it further erodes traditions, in this case the naming conventions for carriers which have already been bastardized. 

Traditions are important.  They help form the pillars and foundations of an organization, providing the continuity and connectivity to the past that help define the characteristics of today and the expectations for tomorrow.  Traditions help establish pride in an organization.

Admittedly, carrier naming has always been a bit of a catch-all process.  The first purpose built carriers, Saratoga and Lexington, were named for Revolutionary War battles.  The following carriers of the Yorktown class were named for additional battles and to honor previous ships of the name.  The Essex class carriers were named for famous ships and battles.  While recent carrier naming has migrated to Presidents, the age of the supercarriers has also seen the bastardization of the naming convention with the Vison, Forrestal, and Stennis, among others, being named for political purposes. 

Given the modern disrespect shown for naming conventions, one can’t logically argue that naming a carrier after Miller is completely unprecedented but it most certainly violates any tradition associated with carrier naming.

While this may seem like a small matter, traditions matter and are important.  This action further erodes the foundations of the Navy and demonstrates the lack of respect and appreciation Navy leadership has for their own organization and history.

I have no problem with naming ships after Navy Cross recipients but there are other ship types that are traditionally named for Navy medal winners.  Honestly, this feels like political pandering especially in light of the fact that Miller has already had a ship named after him – the USS Miller (FF-1091, Knox class) – so it’s not as if he’s been overlooked or unrecognized.

This is yet another mistake by Navy leadership.


Saturday, January 18, 2020

Logistics Surge Exercise Results

You may recall, not too long ago, that the Navy instituted a large scale Transportation Command (TransCom) sealift surge test (see, “LogisticsSurge Exercise”) involving some 30 or so ships of the Ready Reserve Force (RRF) and US Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD).

At the time, the Navy reported that 80-85% of tasked ships were able to get underway.  I assessed that performance as average – not great, not horrible.  Well, as with every Navy public relations pronouncement, that result was not accurate and appears to have been a manipulated spin of the actual results.  From a new USNI News report on the surge, we see a completely different and woefully worse result,

When U.S. Transportation Command tested the ability of the nation’s maritime Ready Reserve Force to set sail on short notice, only about 40 percent of the vessels deemed ready were able to leave port.

About 60 percent of the Ready Reserve Force was considered ready, and only 40 percent of those ships were able to steam out of port, retired Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, the administrator of MARAD, said Thursday at the 2020 Surface Navy Association Symposium. (1)

We have to do a tiny bit of arithmetic to discern the true magnitude of this abysmal result.  Of the entire Ready Reserve Force, only 60% were considered ready and only 40% of those were able to leave port.  That means that only 40% of 60% were able to sail.  Doing the arithmetic, 40% x 60% = 24%.

24% !!!!!

Only 24% of the RRF were ready and able to sail.  Yikes!  That’s horrendously bad by and standard. 

It’s also a far, far cry from the Navy’s initial claim of 80-85%.  I don’t know what kind of statistical/logical gymnastics the Navy went through to arrive at that number but it was obviously a fraudulent or, at best, highly misleading number presented to try to look good.

The response to these real numbers?

“We’ve got some challenges there,” Buzby [Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, the administrator of MARAD] said. (1)

Some challenges????  Really?  You think so, RAdm. Buzby?  I have to ask, what have you been doing during your time as administrator of MARAD?  Apparently, you haven’t been improving readiness.  To be fair, the Navy isn’t exactly allocating much funding for this but why haven’t you been loudly beating the drum and sounding the alarm?  This is the security of the nation at stake.  Apparently, this was just a ‘get along, go along’ job for you.  Shameful.

This is yet another example of the Navy’s mindless pursuit of shiny new warship hulls at the expense of logistics, training, readiness, maintenance, and everything else.  It is also yet another example of the Navy's pattern of hiding real data and presenting misleading or fraudulent data.





(1)USNI News website, “Test of Ready Reserve Force Exposes Need For Newer Ships, More People”, Ben Werner, 16-Jan-2020,

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Unmanned Ships Won't Count

It’s not often that ComNavOps is surprised by the Navy (stunned by their stupidity, yes, but not often surprised) but the Navy has managed to surprise me regarding ship counting.

As you know, and as we’ve documented, the Navy has been officially pursuing a 355 ship fleet (established by the 2016 Force Structure Assessment) for some time.  They have looked ridiculous in that pursuit by early retiring perfectly good ships, deferring maintenance (which will result in additional early retirements down the road), and building excessively expensive ships which reduces the number of ships they can afford to buy, all while proclaiming that they want a 355-ship fleet.

To save face and try to look like they’re accomplishing their goal, the Navy attempted to fudge the ship count numbers by counting hospital ships and logistic support ships.  Congress immediately responded by legislating that those types of ships could not be counted.  Undeterred, the Navy then began counting ships that had been delivered substantially incomplete (the Zumwalts and Ford) but were quickly commissioned despite being non-functional.  Congress again responded by forbidding that practice.

Most recently, the Navy has been pushing unmanned craft and ComNavOps assumed that the Navy would attempt to count them as warships in the fleet count.  Imagine my surprise to see that the Navy’s official position appears to be that unmanned vessels will not be counted!

Rather than using unmanned vessels to help reach the 355 mark, as some have suggested, Gilday [Chief of Naval Operations, CNO] said unmanned platforms would supplement the battle force total and not count towards that 355 figure.

“There are a lot of assumptions that go along with unmanned because they’re pretty much conceptual. And so the final numbers that’ll come out in a couple of weeks, when we release the assessment, those final numbers will not include unmanned. [Navy] Secretary Modly has said publicly that it’s 355-plus, plus unmanned,” he said. (1)

I had assumed that the Navy would try to weasel the ship count upward using the obvious ploy of counting minor, marginally capable, unmanned vessels.  While I am glad to hear that they will not do so, I am immediately suspicious.  Why would the Navy not attempt to count unmanned craft when they’ve attempted so many other blatant manipulations to fraudulently increase the ship count?

At this point, I had to stop and think about the Navy’s true and only real mission and motivation which is buying new hulls.  So, with that reminder firmly in mind, how would not counting unmanned craft help the Navy achieve their goal of more new hulls?

I also recalled that the Navy has just recently suggested that it needs a bigger slice of the budget pie than the Army, Air Force, and Marines.

Ah, ha!  It now becomes clear. 

If the Navy were to count the unmanned craft then they’d have less leverage to go to Congress and say, ‘hey, we need more ships and more budget to reach the magic 355-ship goal’ because Congress would say, ‘we just gave you lots of unmanned craft that, by your own count, are full-fledged warships as indicated by the fact that you’re counting them in your fleet count’.  So, by NOT counting unmanned craft, the Navy can still go to Congress and plead ‘poverty’ of hulls.

I have no proof of this but what do you think, did we crack the code?  Or, is there some other explanation?


(1)USNI News website, “CNO Gilday Calls for Budget Increase to Reach 355 Ship Fleet; New Battle Force Count Won’t Include Unmanned Ships”, Sam LaGrone, 14-Jan-2020,

Monday, January 13, 2020

Piece It Together

We’ve extensively discussed the problems with the Navy’s concept for surveillance and targeting and noted that it is unrealistic and will fail.  ComNavOps has offered ideas that would allow for effective surveillance and it’s time to pull some of that together and present a complete view of how that would work in the context of an amphibious assault, just to pick one relatable scenario.  What follows is presented as a fictional snippet with some analytical commentary mixed in.  The purpose is to illustrate the concept, not present a realistic battle simulation.


Aboard the LHA, the Marine assault commander studied his composite screen which displayed the overall situation.  Initially, the screen had shown nothing other than the handful of known, fixed structures which were scattered around the assault site.  As the assault fleet had approached the target, UAV recon drones had been launched to begin filling in the picture.  This was an opposed landing and UAV attrition had been quite high but that was expected. 

The bigger problem was that no single UAV could survive long enough to provide anything remotely resembling the total awareness that misguided military planners of the early 2000’s and 2010’s had assumed and promised would be available.  The large scale Navy Fleet Exercises that had been re-introduced beginning in 2020 had shattered that delusion.  When the opposing fleet forces in the exercises had finally been allowed to utilize their full electronic warfare (EW) and defensive (anti-UAV) capabilities in an exercise, it had become instantly evident that the earlier concept of a few UAVs leisurely circling the battlefield and providing total situational awareness with all ships and aircraft seamlessly connected by a flawless network had been just a fantasy of wishful thinking.

Based on those shocking, eye-opening exercise results, the entire surveillance/recon/network concept had been reworked.  The revised concept had been exercised and refined and was now being put to its first actual combat test.  No one expected it to work perfectly and, in fact, that was one of the foundational assumptions of the system – failure was inevitable, anticipated, and built in!

The assault commander noted that the display was showing that the first assault wave was hitting the beach just about now.  Taking in the entire display picture, he noted the various areas (most of the assault area!) that were largely unknown.  Turning to his Recon Coordinator, he quickly designated and prioritized specific areas for additional, more intensive recon based on the assault plan.  The coordinator contacted the UAV carrier which shortly began launching swarms of small UAVs to the designated areas.

As the recon UAVs approached their target areas they were greeted by enemy laser, EW, missiles, and projectile weapons.  UAVs rained out of the sky or simply vanished in brilliant explosions of light and thunder.  Each UAV was lucky to survive long enough to transmit just a momentary, fragmentary sensor view.  That was perfectly normal in the new recon scheme and was the reason why recon UAVs were as small as possible, simple, dirt-cheap, and deployed in swarms.  As each UAV transmitted its fragmentary data before dying, the central recon data collection center on the UAV carrier began assembling the fragments of data into a cohesive picture.  It wasn’t necessary that any single UAV be able to surveil and transmit the entire battlefield.  It was only necessary that enough UAVs be able to transmit enough fragmentary scans to allow the central computer to assemble a pieced together picture.  Targets were updated and displayed in colors which indicated how old the data point was.  Brilliant red points were newly acquired targets and the color faded to duller red and, eventually, black as the target ‘aged’.  Thus, the operators viewing the data were able to instantly see and comprehend the newness or ‘value’ of the data. 

It was inevitable that many areas were not scanned at all when the designated UAVs were destroyed before being able to acquire and transmit usable data.  Those areas were displayed in patches of gray, letting operators know that the areas were un-scouted.  The Recon Coordinator noted the unknown patches and began designating additional swarms to the areas.

One of the problems was that some (many?) UAVs managed to collect data but the enemy’s EW efforts were disrupting the data transmissions.  Again, this failure was expected and built into the system.  The enemy’s EW disruption and jamming efforts were not, of course, 100% continuous and effective.  The UAVs, assault vehicles, and ships employed various techniques such as frequency hopping to try to shake off the effects of the enemy’s EW.  When momentary (often microsecond bursts) clearances occurred the communications/network computers prioritized which assets to communicate with instead of attempting to talk continuously to every asset.  Communications occurred in microsecond bursts rather than attempting to maintain continuous connections which required massively large broadband channels with unachievably high data rates and network stability.  As the exercises had shown, network stability in a combat zone was a laughable fantasy. 

Thus, the display of the Marine Colonel acting as the shore commander in his specialized Command and Control variant Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV), now sheltered behind a rock outcropping a short ways inland from the beach, was able to receive frequent, fragmentary bursts of data updates.  His situational display was, therefore, never complete and real time in quality but it was alive and functioning.  Noting a couple of areas that were especially lacking on his display but vital to his immediate operations, he designated the areas on the display for priority updates.  The controlling computers back on the UAV carrier adjusted their priorities and the Colonel’s display began filling in the requested areas more frequently at the expense of the lower priority areas.

This was certainly not the all-seeing, all-knowing surveillance system that the delusional Navy leadership of earlier times had promised but that had never been a realistic promise to begin with.  This was a fragmentary approach that allowed commanders to at least maintain a semblance of situation awareness in the face of intense enemy EW and defensive measures.  Yes, there were risks associated with prioritizing certain areas and allowing other areas to remain less monitored but that was the nature of war.

Back aboard the LHA, the assault Commander noted that the assault area display was slowly beginning to fill in.  While the surveillance picture was insufficient to give him a real-time display of the number of rounds remaining in every enemy soldier’s rifle magazine, it was adequate to provide an indication of where enemy units were and were not and in what approximate strength.  With this degree of information, he could begin adjusting his own positions and start calling in fire support where he needed it.

Looking for an opportunity to flank the enemy mechanized battalion that was anchoring the central defensive works, he ordered his Recon Coordinator to concentrate on a stretch of river far to the enemy’s right.  If he could slip a company of infantry in ACVs up the river, they could turn and cut into the enemy’s rear and isolate them from reinforcement.  Again, dozens of small catapults on the UAV carrier launched as one and a small UAV recon swarm formed up and headed for the designated river. 

It took about 30 minutes for the UAV recon swarm to reach the river whereupon they spread out and began their search.  The Commander, noting the time, turned his attention to the recon swarm.  As he watched, the UAV signals began disappearing.  In a matter of minutes, the swarm was wiped out without a single target being detected.  That, the Commander knew, could only have happened if the swarm had run into a large concentration of well equipped enemy forces.  It was safe to assume there was at least an enemy company and quite possible a battalion with attached anti-air units.  Sometimes, a flaming datum was as good as real data.  Having been saved from a possibly disastrous flanking attempt, the Commander marked the river as a likely company/battalion location.  The information would shortly be reflected on the display screens of his own units as communications processing time allowed.  He also passed the information on to the naval commander for air strike and naval gun attention.


We see from this fictional snippet that effective battlefield surveillance is possible but only if we build some fundamental assumptions, based on reality, into our concept.

  • Failure must be built into the concept.  The system will be degraded but must operate effectively in a degraded form.
  • Attrition among UAV assets will be extreme and UAV assets must be dirt cheap and plentiful – almost unlimited in available quantity.
  • A dedicated UAV surveillance carrier will be required.
  • The goal must be broad, general, situational awareness, not total, real time omnipotence.
  • Communications will be severely degraded and must be designed to function as such.  A real time network is pure fantasy.  Communications and data transmissions will have to be on a ‘when possible’ basis.

What all this means is that we must drastically scale back our surveillance expectations.  Exquisitely detailed, real time information is not possible in an electronically contested environment.  We must learn to work with fragmentary information.  It is sufficient to know that a battalion size unit is in a given area – that we don’t know how many rivets are on each vehicle is not an impediment to effective operations and, more importantly, is not a requirement for effective operations.  Our surveillance goal should be to obtain the minimum information we need, not the maximum.

What all this means is that our current plans and equipment are, largely, wrong and useless.  The Navy’s touted distributed lethality concept is a prime example of an idea that will not work and urgently needs to be reworked (doubtful) or abandoned (preferred).  Our Triton and P-8 aircraft are unsuited for battlefield surveillance.  We lack a cheap, expendable surveillance UAV.  Our underwater unmanned vehicles are completely inappropriate for battle surveillance although they may play a role in the larger strategic surveillance requirements.  We lack a supporting vessel (UAV carrier) for mobile, cheap, short range surveillance UAVs.  We utterly lack any viable Concept of Operations (CONOPS) for naval battle surveillance.

In short, we currently have almost nothing of use for naval battle surveillance.  We desperately need to begin exercising our concepts in a realistic fashion so that we can start recognizing their inherent faults and start working towards a concept that is actually viable.