Thursday, January 23, 2014

Top Gun For Ships

Well, we seem to be on a bit of an Admiral Thomas Copeman kick.  His latest effort is an article he authored in the current Proceedings (1) about the new surface warfare training program he’s established.  We’ve talked repeatedly in previous posts about the woefully deficient level of tactical training in the Navy and options for improving the situation.  Suggestions have included a standing OpFor (ala TopGun), the use of Meggit Hammerhead remote speedboats for live fire exercises, and generally more realistic training. 

Copeman acknowledges the very problems that we’ve pointed out with the statement,

“It may be hard to believe, but the U.S. Navy, widely recognized as the greatest Fleet the world has ever known, lacks an organization tasked with development, training, and assessment of the full scope of tactics for the warfare community on which it was founded 238 years ago – surface warfare.”

He also recognizes that the Navy’s focus has mistakenly been exclusively on ship readiness,

“The Surface Navy has long focused on ship readiness above all else …”

Even with that focus, ship readiness is at an all-time low with the situation having gotten so bad that INSURV inspections were classified so as to avoid the continual embarrassment of failures.  Regardless, readiness merely indicates that the ship is functional.  It says nothing about the tactical proficiency of the commanders and crew of the ships and groups.  Physical readiness without tactical readiness borders on pointless and, to his credit, Adm. Copeman sees this and has done something about it.

Some tactical training does, of course, exist in the Navy but it is isolated from any larger picture.  For example, tactical ASW prosecution of a submarine may be taught but the tactics are divorced from any larger consideration of how the ASW tactics fit into the ship or group’s overall tactical actions.  In other words, we may understand how to deal with a submarine in a one-on-one duel but we don’t have a validated set of tactics for executing an overall mission in the face of a submarine threat.

This haphazard approach results in gaps in tactics – sometimes significant and, frankly, astounding.  As Copeman says,

“… no command is currently focused on surface warfare, a core competency since 1775.”

That’s quite an indictment of Naval tactical training!

Using his position as Commander, Naval Surface Forces, Adm. Copeman has instituted the Naval Surface and Expeditionary Warfare Command which is responsible for creating, validating, and teaching tactics throughout the surface fleet.  He likens the group to the Navy’s Naval Strike and Warfare Center (NSAWC). 

He states that the development and training of tactics will be conducted by full time professionals dedicated to that purpose.  Unfortunately, he also strongly implies that the majority of the positions will be filled by naval personnel as a duty assignment.  That’s not the way to build concentrated knowledge.  By the time personnel come up to speed it will be time to move on.  I’ll withhold my judgment on this aspect.

Training will build from the individual to the ship to the group in much the same way an airwing trains independently prior to integrating with the carrier and then the carrier group.

The one aspect that is not mentioned in the article is how the individuals/ships/groups will be challenged during training.  I’ve opined that a dedicated OpFor is required.  Copeman offers no explanation about this aspect.  Again, I’ll have to wait and see how it develops.  The potential problem with the lack of an OpFor is that the training risks becoming a paper exercise with no opportunity to prove out the tactics being taught.  The benefit of Top Gun was that the student aviators could put the tactics that they were being taught into practice during training, learn lessons, grasp finer points of the tactics, and get immediate and expert feedback.  Lacking an OpFor, there is no chance to attempt the tactics against a thinking enemy and no chance to learn through experience.  A trainee may be able to regurgitate the tactical maxims but will have no gut level experience to fall back on when things inevitably go wrong.

We’ve discussed the use of simulators as an OpFor and noted that they just don’t provide the level of stress and confusion that real combat will.  While we can’t engage in real combat, we can actually “fight” our ships for minutes, hours, or days on end and feel some of the stress and fatigue of combat through the use of actual drone targets, maneuvering real ships, having to be aware of actual terrain effects, and so forth.  For those of you typing out comments to the effect that combat occurs in CIC so computer simulations are the same thing, I refer you to the Vincennes incident where a highly trained CIC crew made every mistake possible and few that were thought not possible when faced with a real situation.  I would remind you that as Air Force simulator use increased, so, too, did real world mishaps because the simulators just couldn’t replicate the stress of g-forces and cockpit confusion.  There’s a reason why naval aviators qualify on the carrier rather than on simulators.  Britain sends their prospective submarine commanding officers to sea for evaluation rather than simulators.  And so on …  Simulators have a useful role but can’t be the entire training process.

It sounds like the key to the program will be the Weapons and Tactics Instructors (WTI) who will be the core, highly trained experts who will be placed throughout the fleet to provide expertise and training.  Here, the program seems to differ from Top Gun in that the WTIs will go to the fleet as opposed to having the fleet come to the instructors.  Again, the merits of this approach remain to be seen.

In summary, Adm. Copeman has recognized the Navy’s failure to focus on tactics and has created a training program to address the issue.  Several aspects of the program remain open questions as far as their effectiveness with the biggest unknown being the apparent lack of an OpFor to exercise against.  Still, this program is the best training effort to come along in quite some time and I’ll give it every chance to succeed before passing judgment.  Admiral Copeman has, once again, stepped up and demonstrated vision far beyond the rest of his peers.

(1) US Naval Institute Proceedings, “Tactical Paradigm Shift”, VAdm. Thomas Copeman, USN, Jan 2014


  1. Hi, nice article (as ever) totally agree with your sentiment. One teeeeeny this. Even though I’m a proud Englishman, I’m an even prouder Brit.
    “England sends their prospective submarine commanding officers to sea for evaluation rather than simulators” ( the “perisher” course, see you tube for 80’s tv series )
    “Britain Sends”, else you’ll get all sorts of issues from the Northern Irish, Welsh and Scots, and the last thing you want is an angry Scotsman with a claymore down your IP port. ( hell to shift )
    They will get rightfully tetchy as Faslane sub base where all or subs sortie from is actually in Scotland.
    P.S. would love to see a UK \ US Naval Topgun, would be an awesome thing.

    1. Beno, I know that and yet I still made the mistake, shamefully. We tend to use the words interchangeably even though they aren't. Thanks for correcting me. I've corrected the statement in the post.

      That's an interesting thought about combined training. I know there's some amount of cross-training for a handful of individuals but nothing formal that I'm aware of. One of the problems would be agreeing on what to teach. Britain's equipment and needs are different than the US and that leads to different tactical needs, hence different training.

      One opportunity that is going to be partially shared is the common missile module for ballistic missile submarines. Having gone that far, I don't understand why the two countries didn't opt for a single submarine. Any thoughts from your end?

    2. Oh don’t apologise, it really is terribly complicated. Try this video its by one of your countrymen, very very complete and hilarious.
      I think my point on US \ UK “Thursday war” \ topgun
      IS the differences. The RN must get bored of fighting itself and the variety of tactics and capabilities make for a more effective force.
      An example. Attacking a US Battle group is so much more complex when it MAY ( or may not ) contain RN ships and subs, that means a largely differing set of weapons, aircraft, sensors, capabilities and tactics. In short it really screws with you planning.
      Now as for the SSBN, well there are many reasons, national pride, sovereign security, the fact your umming and urring a bit about signing the contracts ;)
      + the usual discrepancies in required capabilities etc etc etc
      I also think in this case, and this is going to seem a little non PC, but I also suspect that we like OUR ultimate national defence to be OUR ultimate national defence.
      I think to a great extent it works well for us uniquely “joined” global level military allies. Cherishing our differences, and learning to work together, NOT being the same !?

    3. I have no particular strong feelings one way or the other about commonality between the two countries. Differing requirements probably preclude much commonality. The SSBN, though, seems like a case where the requirements would be very close to identical and commonality would benefit both sides from a cost standpoint. Given that we're going to use a common missile compartment, it wouldn't seem like much of a stretch to simply make a common SSBN. Oh well, no big deal either way. Good to hear thoughts from the other side!

  2. The big danger of this is standardizing training that takes the training out of the hands of the Skipper and places it in the hands of the "expert." Ultimately the Skipper is the one that needs to be held accountable for the capabilities of the ship.

    The next danger is "studying for the exam." This is a natural human tendancy that can have severe consequences. If you are required to have pass a series of tests or face relief of command that is what the ship will train for. If that is not the actual mission you will be conducting in real life you will be deficient. An example of this was the USMC over the last decade were MEUs would train in AAVs, LCUs and LCACs then go to Iraq of Afghanistan and be handed MRAPs and battle IEDs.

    Lastly it can further degrade the chain of command in that the ships Skipper is now evaluated by both the training command and his next commander. This can further erode accountability as a good commander can now be relieved for not doing well on the test or vice versa.

    In the end I am not saying this is a bad idea but be warned that for every great idea there are drawbacks and some of them can be quite severe.

  3. Ship readiness shouldn't be the goal, it should be the lowest acceptable level of readiness, then built upon with tactical training.

    If a plane isn't good to go, you don't get in it. You need a plane that not only flies, but has working systems to get any training.

    If the surface fleet considers getting a ship's systems all working before deployment, they're doing it wrong. All the ship's systems have to work and everyone has to know how to use them before you can even begin training.

    Having up systems with a crew that knows how to use them all is the minimum to enter training. Then you can learn how to get good with them.

    Sheesh, that's pathetic.


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