Monday, June 11, 2018

The Bare Minimum - Follow Up

One of the never ending surprises about this blog is the response levels to the various posts.  From the start, I’ve been consistently surprised about which topics/posts generate active responses and which don’t.  Some that I think will generate big responses do nothing and others that I view almost as throwaways generate a large response.  Yes, there are a few topics that are almost guaranteed to generate a large response, such as the LCS which everyone hates and seems to want to say it in print or the F-35 which again, is controversial.  Beyond that, though, I’ve given up trying to predict responses.

That said, I’m really surprised by the lack of response to the recent post, “The Bare Minimum” (see, “The Bare Minimum”).  Rereading it, it may be that I failed to adequately convey the concept and its ramifications.  The concept impacts the very foundation of our entire naval combat operational plan!

To refresh, the Navy has a vision of an immense regional, if not world wide, network of interconnected sensors, platforms, and weapons.  In this concept, every asset will have an exquisitely complete picture of both friendly and enemy positions, unit types, and strengths.  This exquisite knowledge will allow us to apply overwhelming firepower against each enemy asset in turn with the enemy not only helpless to prevent it but totally unaware of how it was happening and where it was coming from.  To further compound the enemy’s confusion, weapons will be directed and guided by platforms other than the firing platform, with the weapons sometimes being handed off from one guiding platform to another in a complex chain of control that leaves the enemy completely baffled about where the weapons are coming from.

Distributed lethality is a subset of this concept with individually weak, largely helpless, and sensor-limited units suddenly becoming deadly purveyors of firepower roaming enemy waters and airspace with impunity and lethality.

The Navy’s various networked anti-air systems such as Cooperative Engagement Capability and its more recent descendant, Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air (NIFC-CA), are also subsystems of this overarching, omniscient network.

To return to the premise of the “bare minimum” post, the concept is that rather than design for ultimate, best, most perfect user experience which is predicated on perfect communications, flawless networks, unlimited bandwidth, and seamless integration of disparate systems and software, we should, instead, be designing for the absolute minimum required capability.

In war, nothing works the way you think it will.  Confusion reigns.  Networks fail spontaneously.  Signals are garbled.  Communications are erratic and sporadic.  And this is before factoring in enemy activities like broad spectrum jamming, false signal injection, satellite destruction, cyber attacks, and the like. 

In other words, if our systems are set up to work only with the most perfect network and data flow the world has ever seen or envisioned and our personnel are trained only to work with this level of system performance, what will happen when the system fails hideously and our personnel are completely lost and have never experienced a significantly degraded system?  The answer is obvious and short – they’ll be lost and they won’t know what to do. 

We’ve seen this play out repeatedly in recent history.  The Ticonderoga class Port Royal’s GPS system failed and no one knew what to do – so, the ship ran aground.

The McCain and Fitzgerald had various system failures and no one knew what to do – so, the ships collided with large commercial vessels.

The MidEast based Riverine boats had various system failures and no one knew what to do – so, the Iranians seized the boats and crews.

And so on.

And these are all during peacetime.

We need to design to a level that provides the bare minimum acceptable performance regardless of the situation or efforts by Murphy, nature, or the enemy to disrupt our systems. 

We need to train our personnel to be effective with the bare minimum sensor data and networking (often none).

In other words, we need to stop designing for the ultimate, mythical, fantasy level of combat and start designing for the realistic, bare minimum and then make sure that the system is capable of delivering that bare minimum level no matter what the enemy does.  Instead of designing a system that depends on the instantaneous, unhindered flow of a gazillion goopabytes of data per nanosecond but that will fail if a single bit is disrupted, we need to design a system that only needs one byte of data to get through, has a quadzillion error checks, has built in system redundancies, and is robust enough to laugh at any natural or enemy disruptions – a system that can be 100% counted on no matter what.

Sure, we can design in extra capabilities and, if nature, Murphy, and the enemy is cooperating and the system is performing better than anticipated then, hey, all the better.  But, and this is the big but, we need a bare minimum standard that we are trained to fight well with and can always count on.  Instead of designing ever more complex, convoluted systems let’s start working on systems that are so rugged and robust that no natural or enemy action can disrupt them.

Let’s ditch the entire Third Offset Strategy and start working on a communication system that allows the F-35 to actually talk to someone other than another F-35 (you didn’t know about that problem, did you?).

Let’s ditch NIFC-CA and start working on basic AAW doctrine that every ship/Captain knows and can and will execute without needing to communicate (that’s kind of what doctrine is!) and let’s drill and train to that standard until it becomes automatic.

Let’s forget about complex chains of hand-offs of weapon guidance and just get weapons that reliably launch and guide without any dependence on GPS.

Let’s drop GPS navigation systems on ships and regain our proficiency with inertial navigation, dead reckoning, celestial fixes, charts, bearings, and compasses.

Let’s drop the LCS multi-power source, cross-connecting, complex gear system that has failed on almost every ship and go back to one power source and direct coupling of power and propulsor.

We need to stop designing exquisite ships and start designing rock solid ships.

And so on.

The very core of our envisioned warfighting capability is based on an unachievable degree of performance.  It’s based on wishful thinking and that’s a recipe for disaster as has been repeatedly demonstrated.

How many more groundings, collisions, and disasters do we need to admit that our dreams of perfect, integrated, omniscient systems are just that – dreams?

We need to return to systems that cannot break because in war, everything breaks.

You can have a Soviet AK-47 assault rifle that works under any conditions or level of mistreatment but, possibly, suffers a bit in accuracy or you can have an exquisitely accurate, technologically advanced, high performance US M16 assault rifle that failed on every other shot in Vietnam.

The concept of “Bare Minimum” is, or should be, central to our approach to warfighting. 


  1. The only I can say is I totally agree all these complex systems are actually designed to fail IMHO so the contractors make more money fixing what should not have been a concern in the first place the Germans did the same thing in WWII with exquisite machines that were defeated by far simpler machines ie.Bismark the massive Tiger tank the Me262 etc. Do you see a similar pattern here compare them to the Zummies M1 tank LCS and the 35 they are extremely complex systems that tie up vast personal and resources just like Germany

    1. Bismarck was not an exquisite machine. She was poorly designed and poorly constructed. She was sunk by better designed, equipped and constructed ships.

    2. Guys, please don't wander off on a side path of debating to what degree a particular item was or was not complex. Stay focused on the overarching premise.

      We need to address technology and its handmaiden, complexity, and how to balance the benefits they bring with the problems they create.

      Also, bear in mind that today's new and unreliable technology may well eventually be tomorrow's rugged and reliable tech. The steam engine, when first introduced, was unreliable and barely functioned. Today, it's quite rugged and reliable. The problem is when you have to enter combat with technology that is not yet rugged and reliable.

      Finally, technology alone is not the problem. It's what can be done to disrupt that technology. For example, GPS is pretty reliable during peacetime (though the Navy seems to have trouble keeping its GPS navigation devices working!) but is easily disrupted during wartime - hence, the need for charts and compasses as an undisruptable alternative.

  2. And besides all these systems are being jacked and copied by the Chinese and Russian' s any way

    1. Well, that's the positive aspect to this. The Chinese, if they're dumb enough to copy us, will have the same problems we will !

  3. The decision on the NSM (and similar 'smart', long range munitions) may accidentally provide some ability for the Navy to remain lethal in heavy EW environments. While the fantasy is that a far away sensor can provide it exact coordinates and guide it directly to a target, a more reasonable approach may be that when you have an approximate fix on an enemy battle fleet ("the jamming seems to be coming from 100 nm that-away"), just lob cruise missiles in that general direction on a search pattern. If its just a search pattern, your inertial guidance should be OK until it sees something and if its using visual cues for terminal targeting it doesn't really need a network. Think of it as a modern flavor of the attacks launched at Midway. The range beyond your sensors then isn't for being able to reach out and touch the enemy at 150 miles or 500 miles or 1000 miles through some magical targeting scenario but additional search and loiter time in the 50-100 mile range.

    1. That's completely reasonable except for cost. The NSM is projected to cost a bit less than a Tomahawk which is around $1M each. So, let's say, $800,000 per NSM. To go shooting them "that-away" on a hope gets quickly cost prohibitive.

      Also, understand that shooting a single missile towards a possible, bearing-only target won't accomplish anything unless the there is a target and it happens to have no effective air defense - a patrol boat, in other words. If the target is, say, a Chinese "Aegis" destroyer, one missile isn't going to bother it. You'd need to launch a large salvo of missiles and no one is going to launch 30-50 missiles at $800,000 each on a bearing-only, hope target.

      Also, if we started doing that kind of profligate flinging of missiles at every hint of a target, the enemy would quickly use fake signals to get us to use up our inventories. You mention jamming. A helo or aircraft could simply fly around broadcasting jamming signals and watch while we launch missiles at a non-existent target.

      So, what do you think of the concept of a bearing-only attack now? With cost factored in, do you still think it's worthwhile?

    2. While I'm certain a helicopter or a patrol boat can pretend to be something bigger, I did say an approximate fix on a 'battle fleet'.

      If I had my druthers, one of those things the Navy would be doing and studying and tasking intelligence right now on is "What does a Chinese surface task force look like, from the point of view of a DDG-51 (effectively our ship-of-the-line), when the Chinese task force is trying to hide/jam/confuse us?" Presumably its got some target we're trying to protect (or its protecting a target from us). That starts to narrow down where it could/should be. So I agree that no we shouldn't start wildly firing at every shadow we see, but I think there are ways from our proverbial forbears to say "there's a task force in this box somewhere".

      Also, while a single missile (or a few potshots) might not get through a Chinese air defense cruiser's engagement zone, they'll have the same problem we do: a fixed number of VLS cells. Every 2 (or 3) HQ-9A's that isn't going after an F-35. Every NSM that comes at it from a search pattern from North helps to confuse whether the launch platform was from the North or the East.

      It's a problem that we'd need to work through realistic testing and force on force training. "What's a good enough fix to launch a major raid?" "When can we afford to lob a missile or two at a time?" Somewhere in there is the balance between too twitchy a trigger finger that you run out of missiles before you find anything and waiting until you're sinking to return fire. Yes, firing missiles without a definitive, 100% fix is expensive, but having all those missiles in their tubes while the ship sinks is much more expensive.

    3. Very good comment. The only thing I would add is to note/remind that the Chinese will be operating in their home waters, scant miles from ready resupply. In contrast, we'll be at the end of a Pacific wide logistics train that, if China chooses to contest it with submarine attacks, might only be sporadically available. That has to impact the launch decisions and acceptability criteria for targeting. It can't help but shift that balance point between too ready to launch and too reticent.

  4. The basics are certainly needed. The problem is that we have not been in a peer war since WW2 or in certain aspects Korea. To enforce the idea. An old Senior Chief once told me many moons ago "Things get fixed when blood gets spilled."

  5. "You can have a Soviet AK-47 assault rifle that works under any conditions or level of mistreatment but, possibly, suffers a bit in accuracy or you can have an exquisitely accurate, technologically advanced, high performance US M16 assault rifle that failed on every other shot in Vietnam."

    You're probably already aware of this, but the original AR-15 (Eugene Stoner's original ArmaLite AR-15, not the modern generic class) was apparently a reliable rifle. The Army's bureaucracy then "improved" the design into the M-16.

    Great 1981 magazine article on this by James Fallows here:

    I'm reminded of the BuOrd magnetic torpedo fiasco in WW2.

    1. I am aware of that. The replacement of a reliable system with a new one that turns out to be less reliable is a common phenomenon throughout history and should be a lesson for us.

      The next new candidate rifle should be buried in mud, left for a month, dug up, and if it still works perfectly then we can begin to consider it.

      The F-35 should be flow to a tropical island, parked for a month, and if it still works then we can begin to consider it. After all, isn't that the Marine's fantasy vision of a jungle base?

      And so on.

    2. If this kind of thing catches your interest, you might read about the F4F Wildcat. The "improved" Wildcat was generally considered by most pilots to be a downgrade from the older version.

    3. Was not aware of this with respect to the Wildcat, will look into it.

      F-35 is dogshit whether or not it's reliable. I don't understand why the Marine Corps needs fighters...or why they need to be VTOL. Couldn't they use an A-10 or a similar aircraft? I would also be in favor of that for the Army.

    4. "F-35 is dogshit whether or not it's reliable."

      On this blog, I try to be objective. There are many reasons to dislike the F-35 but the fact is that it will be a capable aircraft in many ways. Now, one can legitimately question whether "capable" is worth the trillions that this is costing us but that's an issue of value rather than capability. One can also question the suitability of the F-35C for the Navy's needs in the Pacific/China theatre. And so on.

      The point is to try to be objective. No weapon system is all bad or all good. Every weapon system is a compromise. Whether, on balance, the series of compromises produce a good system or a bad system is what we need to judge.

      If you could magically design a fighter for the Navy and have it on carrier decks instantly, would you design an F-35C? Undoubtedly not. Would you incorporate aspects of the F-35 into your magic design? Undoubtedly. So, you see the F-35 isn't all bad or all good.

      On balance, it's a capable aircraft that is wrong for the Pacific role which is the Navy's major need. That's unfortunate.

  6. The British Para division in Arnhem during WW2, dropped in the middle of 2 SS Divisions (albeit recuperating and not full strength) and cannot establish communication for 3 days with HQ... the whole division KIA and captured and only small number escaped..

    a highly trained division lost because the brass ignore fog of war

    1. From "A Bridge too Far"

      Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning: Only the weather can stop us now.

      General Stanislaw Sosaboski: Weather. What of the Germans, General Browning. Don't you think that if we know Arnhem is so critical to their safety that they might know it too?

      Lt. General Frederick Browning: See here, General Sosaboski, I should think you would have more faith in Field Marshal Montgomery's plan.

      General Stanislaw Sosaboski: Faith? I will tell you how much faith I have. I am thinking of asking for a letter from you stating that I was ordered to go on this mission in case my men are massacred.

      Lt. General Frederick Browning: I see... I do see. Do you wish such a letter?

      General Stanislaw Sosaboski: No... In the case of massacre: what difference will it make?

  7. CNO,

    Regarding which topics get responses and which don't, I think a lot of readers are like me- we don't really have any true military experience, but are enthusiasts (amateur armchair internet experts). So we aren't really knowledgable about the real things that matter, and we don't have the discipline to read and understand in depth ideas, or boring ideas like logistics.

    Instead, people like big flashy hardware- missiles, guns, and front line ships- carriers, destroyers, frigates- not mine hunters, or support ships. And mainstream controversy like the LCS and F35.

    That's my take on on reader responses for your blog.

    As for basics, that sort of principle holds for many aspects of life. I'm old enough to remember what a paper street directory looks like and have used them while driving my car. It's doubtful any person under 30-35 has used anything other than GPS and google maps. They're damn useful, but you really do need to know the basics, in case. As you've said many times, seamanship is of poorer quality these days. Have they even held a real compass before?


  8. Regarding logistics, I really enjoy the conversations. And it’s hard to find a more important subject, particularly in a SouthPac war where the distances are so great.

    “My logisticians are a humorless lot … they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay.”
    – Alexander

    “The war has been variously termed a war of production and a war of machines. Whatever else it is, so far as the United States is concerned, it is a war of logistics.”
    – Fleet ADM Ernest J. King, in a 1946 report to the Secretary of the Navy


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