The Fleet Problems were conducted from 1923-1940 (I – XXI) and were then abandoned after WWII. Recently, the Pacific Fleet has revived a much scaled down version of Fleet Problem exercises beginning with Fleet Problem XXIII and continuing through XXVIII.
The resumption of Fleet Problems, even if scaled down and limited to the Pacific Fleet rather than the entire Navy, is welcome news. The exercises were, apparently, reinstituted by Adm. Scott Swift. He describes a bit of the impetus for the resumption,
Adding to my concern was the clear message from my intelligence team that our potential adversaries were investing in training that was ever more complex and challenging. We needed to raise our training bar. As fleet commander, I needed to know what we could do, exploring the art of the possible and testing our assumptions about fleet capabilities in a fight against a high-end adversary. (1)
It’s encouraging that Adm. Swift seemed to have recognized that many of our operational concepts (ConOps) were more fantasy than reality.
In other cases, as we considered how our ConOps would play out in reality, it became apparent there were warfighting tasks that were critical to success that we could not execute with confidence. This gap was not because deployers did not practice these tasks individually—the efficiency of the OFRP ensured they could—but because we as a force never practiced them together, in combination with multiple tasks, against a free-playing, informed, and representative Red. (1)
In one case, during an exercise planning session, we discussed a critical operational tactic that is used routinely in exercises and assumed to be executable by the fleet. In the course of the brief, a lone voice said, “Sir, you know we can’t actually do that.” (1)
One of ComNavOps’ criticisms of Navy training is that it is broken down into simplistic, scripted exercises and then the assumption is made that the limited result is applicable to an entire war. For example, if a single ship can launch a single missile and hit a single, unrealistic drone surrogate target, then the assumption is made that our entire air defense concept is valid and has been ‘proven’. Adm. Swift appears to have grasped the fallacy in this type of training. For example,
For example, it is critical that we be able to operate carrier strike groups (CSGs) in areas of significant submarine threat. Our traditional approach to this challenge would be to create an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) exercise, tasking submarines to act as targets within a set geographic area. In a Fleet Problem, we instead would task the CSG to conduct a combat mission (“NLT 01100Z, conduct strikes on…”), giving it maximum flexibility in timing and mechanism. We then would create an environment rich in submarine threats. The CSG’s mission would not be ASW, but rather conducting a core combat mission (strike) in support of the joint fight in a robust submarine threat environment.
Managing the submarine threat is the means to the end —strike. (1) (emphasis added)
Brilliant! This is how training should be.
Swift’s use of Fleet Problems also embraces failure. He seems to recognize that failure is not only the best teacher but also a requirement for learning. This is outstanding especially in today’s risk averse, zero-tolerance command environment. I only hope that he is successful in implementing this philosophy of embraced failure.
One of the strengths of the new Fleet Problem series is that it does not involve future weapons and capabilities. Participants use only the existing capabilities of their assets. Thus, for example, there is no hand waving to magically sense enemy assets due to the anticipated, future all-seeing sensor. The participants must fight with what they actually have – you know, kind of like how you have to fight an actual war.
An Opposing Force (OpFor) has, apparently, been created, the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team (PNAT). Unfortunately, the article does not go into detail about the structure and assets of the OpFor or the degree of dedication and training they have. The strength of the Navy’s famous Top Gun program was the core of people dedicated to nothing but studying the enemy’s tactics and capabilities and then using that knowledge to develop and teach tactics. It is unknown to what degree this model is being followed. Without a competent OpFor, the training loses much of its value.
Adm. Swift sums up the value of realistic Fleet Problems nicely,
Fleet Problems allow us to learn those lessons with bruised egos instead of combat losses. (1)
Unfortunately, there are some notable shortcomings with the Fleet Problem as currently practiced:
Limited Assets – The Pacific Fleet, though large, is still just a subset of the Navy and has a limited number of ships and aircraft assigned to it. For example, it typically has only a single carrier or, occasionaly, two. This means that any exercise will not be representative of how we’ll actually fight. We’ll conduct carrier operations with groups of four and it just isn’t possible to simulate multi-carrier groups with only a single ship. Further, it’s impossible to provide multiple carriers to both the OpFor and the Blue (US) groups. Thus, we run the risk of developing bad habits. We may develop tactics suited for a single carrier that are entirely unsuited for multiple carriers. We certainly aren’t learning how to effectively command and utilize twenty or thirty escorts, for example. By way of comparison, Fleet Problem XX in 1939 involved 134 ships, 600 planes, and over 52,000 personnel, according to Wiki. (2)
Limited Geography – Pacific Fleet can only operate in the Pacific Fleet area although given that China is the ultimate enemy this is not as bad a limitation as it might be. It does, however, limit the ability to exercise in an area or against land targets that are better simulated elsewhere around the globe.
Limited OpFor – there just aren’t enough assets to properly equip a realistic OpFor. Again, the Pacific Fleet normally has only one carrier assigned or, temporarily, perhaps two. It just isn’t possible to provide multiple carriers to both the OpFor and the Blue (US) groups. The same applies to submarines and aircraft. Thus, the exercises are inherently limited in scope.
Limited Applicability – The ‘doctrine’ developed from the Pacific Fleet exercises is limited to just the current Pacific Fleet personnel. It is not, to the best of my knowledge, adopted or applied Navy-wide. Thus, the local commanders may benefit but the Navy, overall, does not. The next logical step would be for the Navy to reinstitute Navy-wide Fleet Problems.
ComNavOps loves to report good news but there are so few opportunities. Well, this is one such opportunity. The resumption of Fleet Problems, even on a limited basis, is a great development. The Navy needs to reinstitute this practice on a Navy-wide basis and provide the larger numbers of assets that a truly useful Fleet Problem requires. Well done, Adm. Swift.
Now, Admiral, get the Navy to expand this to a true Fleet Problem and let’s find out what 4-carrier battle groups can do. Let’s put that distributed lethality concept to a large scale test. Let’s see if we can sustain our logistical support for the fleet during combat. Let’s explore what the Chinese will attempt to do. Let’s see if we can retake Taiwan. Let’s figure out how to penetrate the Chinese A2/AD zone.
Peacetime is our golden opportunity to prepare for the next war and we’re squandering it. Let’s get back to the business of preparing for high end, peer war.
(1)USNI Proceedings, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities”, Mar 2018, Adm. Scott Swift,https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018-03/fleet-problems-offer-opportunities
(2)Wikipedia, “Fleet Problem”, retrieved 28-Dec-2018,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fleet_problem