Saturday, May 17, 2014

Naval Trends and Future Combat

ComNavOps has been known to be occasionally (?!) critical of Navy leadership and with more than ample reason.  However, ComNavOps also prides himself on being fair and objective.  If Navy leadership can produce instances of wisdom, ComNavOps will gladly point it out and offer praise.  In fact, an example of just such a piece of wisdom has made an appearance in the latest issue of Proceedings (1).

The author discusses the impact of Long Range Precision Strike Systems (LRPS) on future conflict and force structure in addition to some general trends in future warfare.  He recognizes that the key to LRPS effectiveness is targeting but fails to fully develop the implications of that factor.  For example, it’s not necessary to employ AAW kinetic kill weapons if the enemy’s targeting capability can be disrupted – a potentially easier task.  Nonetheless, most of the article offers some excellent observations, predictions, and conclusions.  I’ll touch on some of the more interesting points.

As cyber and electronic offensive capabilities increase, it will become important to be able to operate under strict EMCON conditions.  Unfortunately, the Navy has largely abandoned this practice and only sporadically requires electromagnetic shielding on new equipment.

Unmanned systems offer the potential for significant destructive capability.  However, more and more of the control over that capability is being given over to autonomous systems.  The author notes that the US is sensitive to the moral and ethical issues surrounding autonomous control of killing machines but makes the insightful observation that other nations may be less constrained which could create a disadvantage for the US.

The author states that given the technological challenges and costs involved, lasers and rail guns are unlikely to have a significant impact on naval warfare in the next 15 years.

The increasing capability of LRPS weapons dictates a shift in focus from active defense to active deception and countermeasures – an issue we’ve previously discussed (see, "AAW - Hard or Soft Kill").

The author brings up a major issue by recognizing that our command and control which is dependent on extensive networking, unfettered communications, and copious data flow will be seriously compromised by both enemy cyber activity and electronic warfare coupled with the need for strict EMCON.  He states that systems must be limited to the lowest possible power levels to avoid electromagnetic emissions.  We’ve discussed this in a previous post (see, "EMCON - What's That?").  You’re probably asking yourself why, then, has the Navy embarked on the EMALS method of launching aircraft?  EMALS is, of course, a large number of immensely powerful motors which are totally unshielded and create an unintentional electromagnetic beacon broadcasting the carrier’s location to all.  He goes on to conclude that the hindered command and control of the future battlefield will necessitate a return to more autonomous control by the on-scene commander – a return to the past, as it were.

He also notes that the long range of enemy strike systems will threaten logistic bases far to the rear of the conflict.  Our assumption of unhindered flow of supplies to the front will be challenged and our assumption of secure and unthreatened Air Force basing will become invalid.  Coupled with this, the author suggests that our current inventories of weapons will be inadequate for sustained combat which he suggests will be more likely although he does not develop his rationale for that statement.  I happen to agree with his belief and wish he would have offered his rationale for comparison.  Though he does not cite examples, every conflict in history has seen profligate munitions use well beyond any pre-conflict estimate.  The Royal Navy’s expenditure of huge amounts of ASW munitions during the Falklands conflict for absolutely no return is a good example.  The author notes that the side with greater “arsenal depth” (inventory size) may have a decisive advantage.  We have become so enamored with our precision strikes that we have lost all sense of the inefficient and wasteful use of munitions that a real war will engender. 

After much discussion, the author goes on to list some general characteristics of desirable future forces.  These are worth repeating verbatim.

  • Platforms employing standoff ordnance that penetrate high-end defenses
  • Platforms with an emphasis on offensive firepower to prevail at sea
  • Mobile and low-observable platforms and logistics, readily dispersed, and heavily protected or hidden by decoys, obscurants, RF jammers, and signature control
  • Forces minimally reliant on RF networks to be employed against high-end opponents using pre-planned responses and low-data-rate, secure, and sporadic communications

He also list general characteristics of less desirable forces.

  • Those dependent on fixed bases
  • Platforms within enemy missile ranges tha have large signatures and are thus readily targetable
  • Systems dependent upon long-distance, high-data-rate RF networks
  • Platforms that must penetrate high-end defenses to deliver ordnance
  • Platforms whose primary means of survival rests on active defense (i.e. shooting missiles with missiles)

Consider some of these characteristics, both desirable and undesirable.

The recognition that survivability will be tied to a full spectrum of “stealth” rather than just platform shaping/coating is a key point and suggests that our recent focus on JSF and Zumwalt platform stealth, as examples, may be less than optimal.

The recognition that our current dependence on unhindered GPS, communications, data sharing, UAV control, etc. may be seriously compromised suggests that a massive rethink of these issues is in order.

The recognition of the vulnerability of fixed bases both combat (airfields and harbors) and logistical, far from the front, should warn us about the difficulties inherent in prosecuting a Chinese conflict given the extreme scarcity of basing anywhere near the area.

The recognition that active AAW defenses may be a path of diminishing returns is astute.

To be sure, the author misses on a few points.  For example, he dismisses the value of armor and fails to recognize that the true value of armor is the damage mitigation it offers in preventing cheap kills rather than the ability to totally shrug off an impact by a major munition.  Nonetheless, the bulk of the article is quite impressive.

What’s fascinating to me is that these thoughts seem to represent a fairly radical departure from the Navy’s trends of recent years and that they presumably have a degree of official acceptance given that the author’s article had to have been approved at the highest levels.  The Navy is not exactly known for its encouragement of dissenting thought so this must be reasonably “official”.  ComNavOps will be on the lookout for more evidence of this line of thinking from official Navy sources and evidence that this thinking is guiding naval procurement.

(1) U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “Sea Power in the Precision-Missile Age”,
RAdm. Walter Carter Jr., USN, May 2014, P 30.


  1. The US Navy has been frequently criticized for not having an adequate anti-ship arsenal. It is easy to articulate that line of criticism... The US Navy's primary anti-ship missile -- the Harpoon is 35 years old, and while Russia, China and even India has (collectively) put out 4 generations of newer anti-ship weapons, most with longer range than the Harpoon, including successive generations of supersonic examples, the US has done nothing. In fact, most Burkes and submarines don't even carry the Harpoon and have no anti-ship missiles on board. The long range Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile has long since been retired from inventory.

    It seems, that the USN is fully intent on being a cruise missile shooting and bomb trucking force with an AEGIS missile battery defending it's carrier(s) and TLAM barges. Confronted with an enemy Navy it seems that there is very little to engage them with.

    This is both true and untrue. Yes, the US Navy is most interested in power projection over land using cruise missiles and bomb dropping carrier aircraft. This has been the principle role played by the USN in all our recent wars. Yes, it is true that there are very few Harpoons in a task group -- both on top of destroyers and in the carrier's stockpiles. But, no, an opposing Navy will be gravely mistaken to think that USN has very little ability to sink them.

    There are currently 40 Los Angeles and 10 Virginia class boats in service. That's 50 offensive platforms which most Navies do not have effective defenses against. That is the USN's ASuW punch and it is felt that this is a more effective way of sinking surface action groups than trading anti-ship missiles with them. The Harpoon and the LRASM are simply prudent steps to not put all the eggs in the same basket. It doesn't change the fact that the dominant component in the US Navy's anti-ship punch lies in her silent service.

    Pertaining to the topic above, one needs to ask... what's has a greater emphasis on offensive firepower, is extremely mobile, extremely low-observable, logistically independent, readily dispersed, hidden, obscured, minimally reliant on RF networks, than a nuclear attack sub?

    1. Dwight, that's a good comment. Note, though, that the author of the article was not limiting his discussion to ASuW. He was looking at the impact of long range precision strike in general - to include attacks against fixed bases from very long ranges. His comments and conclusions were much more general than just ASuW.

      I also note that the Harpoon inventory is nearing zero. They have a shelf life issue and will be completely removed from service in the very near future.

      While subs offer a very effective means of conducting ASuW, I'm sure the unlucky ship's CO who does not happen to have a sub at his beck and call would appreciate a modern and capable anti-ship missile for those chance meetings with an enemy ship!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. B.Smitty, air power is an effective anti-ship force, as you note. I would add, though, that naval air power must be relatively close to the target and the Navy is showing ever greater reluctance to step into harm's way. The Navy has stated that they won't approach enemy shorelines closer than 50+ miles out of fear of land based missiles. They've all but ceded the 1000 nm A2/AD zone out of fear of ballistic missiles.

      Air power is potent but not from 1000-1500 miles away! The Navy needs to grow a doctrinal pair and learn how to operate within effective range of the enemy. If they want effective range to be 1000+ miles than we need some longer ranged missiles and planes.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. B.Smitty, I'm not conceding the zone, the Navy is! I don't believe the Chinese have any functional ballistic missile carrier killer capability at all but the Navy is certainly terrified of it.

      Where did you get that 800 mile figure? Wiki lists the range of the SH in clean configuration as 1275 nm and that would be with a perfect flight profile. The combat radius is listed as 390 nm and, again, that would be without any roundabout waypoints or combat maneuvering. A real world combat radius would be more like 250-300 nm at best.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. That's a set of PowerPoint slides from many years ago. Any idea what the data source is? That range is so far beyond any other stated combat range that I can't accept it without some authoritative source data. As you've stated previously, PowerPoint presentations are generally optimisitic in the extreme!

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I hate to pick at a scab, but I wonder if we didn't miss an opportunity back in the day:

    "Air power is potent but not from 1000-1500 miles away! The Navy needs to grow a doctrinal pair and learn how to operate within effective range of the enemy. If they want effective range to be 1000+ miles than we need some longer ranged missiles and planes"

    You guys can debate about the HS range, but while its better than the C/D variant its still doesn't seem to have the range we'd like. IIRC the Tomcats had around a 550nm combat radius. It was because of that that during the opening stages of Afghanistan IIRC they were some of the first strike aircraft on scene.

    Yes, from what I understand she could be a maintanance nightmare, but I wonder if we had put the effort into upgrading we could have mitigated that, and gotten an altogether more useful aircraft.

    FWIW, I like the SuperHornet. The more I read though, the more it seems like an evolution to the Tomcat would have us in better stead now.

    Ah well. Water under the bridge. They're gone.

    1. I'm not a fan of the SH. It is what it is. It's reasonably reliable, has good sensors, cockpit and integration and carries a decent load. It also has a known price tag.

      Otherwise it's a pig.

      It was a fantastic program that successfully produced a mediocre product.

      Just MHO.

  4. "The Navy needs to grow a doctrinal pair and learn how to operate within effective range of the enemy"

    Amen! I mean, during the Cold War wasn't one plan to sail the CVN's up close to Russia to threaten some of their northern airbases?

    I don't want to sound callous, and I've had several friends in the Navy. But... I guess I'm of the opinion that if we don't have the ability to risk our naval assets for the sake of achieving certain goals, then its almost useless spending billions on our Navy.

    If we have to go to war, its going to entail risk, alot of it. And ships will get sunk.

    If our Navy is just a land strike platform that is only good for dealing with smaller nations, than maybe we'd do just as well with fewer, smaller carriers that can park with impunity off the coast of Somalia or Iraq. No, we wouldn't get the punch, but we'd certainly spend less money.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.