Saturday, December 29, 2018

Fleet Problem Exercises

The US Navy famously conducted extensive, full scale fleet problem exercises in the pre-WWII years and those exercises served to validate battle doctrine, explore scenarios, develop carrier operations and tactics, and even predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor (Fleet Problem V conducted a carrier attack on Hawaii).

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,

(2)Wikipedia, “Fleet Problem”, retrieved 28-Dec-2018,


  1. Apparently the Admiral has retired....too bad. Reading in between the lines, looks to me like he started rocking the boat a little too much....again too bad, seems to me he was on to something.

    1. The retirement may have had something to do with the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions and the Antietam grounding.

    2. I'm sure the collisions had some impact on his decision but getting passed over probably hurt a nerve it also seems East Coast Navy and I'm sure some deep inside DoD didn't appreciate his ideas....its too bad he's out.

      Would be great if he would come over and participate to your blog!!!

  2. Its welcome news.

    In the limited set I would add - limited ammunition usage (likely). Considering how small US munitions stockpiles are and their expense I can't see any realistic expenditure of munitions, drones, dummies, and blanks. It always sticks in my mind because of the detailed examination of the Vincennes shoot down I came across a while ago.

    The upshot being that the unengaged link 11 connected frigate managed just a bit too late to figure out they were tracking a civilian airliner. Where as the Vincennes crew was having trouble because they had never operated with all the guns blazing away and had trouble focusing due to the noise and vibration and high speed maneuvering.

    I doubt most crews in the navy ever get operate using there full weapons set against a large number of drones and decoys with some set up as ones not to shoot at.
    Also does anyone in the US military ever train for GPS blackout or limited functionality?

    1. I definitely think an exercise with limited to no GPS and comms should be at the top of the list of what to practice. This is exactly where doctrine would come in handy in the fog of war....

      My fear is with Adm Swift retirement, these exercises will be canned in next year or so or become completely scripted losing all benefits.

    2. I recall reading about an Army (?) colonel in charge of testing various AA systems including Patriot and predecessors being completely disgusted with the very scripted tests, noting that when he and/or his subordinates injected noise (yelling) tinged with panic, things tended to go extremely pear-shaped as operators got rattled. Obviously, he wasn't tapped for flag rank.

    3. Wish to hell I could remember the source, but it was damned near 3 decades I read his account.

  3. I would also have exercises where routinely, US forces have numerical inferiority (gasp!) to Chinese forces....

    1. "US forces have numerical inferiority"

      Spot on! Exercises should also require the US forces to operate from bases hundreds or thousands of miles away because that's how we'll fight the Chinese.

    2. If we could even fight the Chinese in their neck of the woods. I would think, a fair exercise would show a lack of support ships needed in a battle. Since the US Navy is from, well the US, and we are literally thousands of miles from home. I would think, we would need a variety of ships, such as oilers, tankers, tenders of various sorts. We would need to find out if we have the proper logistics needed to fight a battle any place in the world.

      I would think, the Navy would soon find out, how woefully unprepared we really are. It wouldn't take long before we had to retreat to safer grounds.

      If I remember my WW2 history correctly, wasn't part of the US strategy to isolate Japan from its suppliers of various nature? Sort of a slow death?
      Or has the US Military forgot those lessons?

    3. "If I remember my WW2 history correctly, wasn't part of the US strategy to isolate Japan from its suppliers of various nature? Sort of a slow death?
      Or has the US Military forgot those lessons? "

      Hence, if you look at China and their moves towards resource exploitation and security, you start seeing where they're trying to cushion themselves from the effects of the US blockading them, with the new silk road, and their talk to Thailand of digging a canal through the Kra isthmus so they can bypass the Strait of Malacca.

  4. Limited Oprfor, the IJN, ROKN and the RAN would make excellent opfor. Train together, fight together.
    With ABDA as a negative example, to inspire attention to realism.

    1. "would make excellent opfor."

      No, not really. Following the example of Top Gun, the OpFor has to be a dedicated group that studies the enemy's operations and tactics and then can reproduce them in exercises. Simply using other navies as a spur-of-the-moment adversary won't provide the specific training needed to learn Chinese tactics and how to counter them.

      If they'd be willing to assign some units to a permanent OpFor then, yes. Otherwise, no.

    2. I thought so too at first but I'm afraid ROKN and JN ships are too close to USN ships in capability and I'm guessing their tactics might be too similar. I think we need some kind of dedicated OPFOR.

    3. We need a dedicated opfor who can not only replicate "enemy" (IE PRC and Russia) threats, but also have free reign to think of creative ways to attack. Give a guy a budget and allow him to think "How would Iran/ Al Queda/ISIS/Dr. evil fight?"

    4. Sadly, we can't afford a proper For (so to speak), let alone an OpFor, at least not with our Tijuana donkey-show spending priorities (with defense contractors, lobbyists, current GOFOs planning to become contractor executives and lobbyists, and Congress-critters enthusiastically playing the part of the donkey). Cut the admirals by at least 50%, maybe 66%, with graduated lower cuts to lower ranks down to 0% for ensigns; cut all staffs; eliminate the so-called Diversity Directorate and other useless appendages; prosecute some defense contractors and culpable people (especially ex-Navy; and a President and Senate ready to promote and confirm admirals that will "drain the swamp". Too much depends on a Congress ready to change the procurement laws and outside if getting our teeth kicked in at the beginning of a war, I see little chance of that happening. We just might get that chance before the real crisis with China develops, but I fear China has already got too much of a (financial) grip on the powers that be unless they get over-confident or desperate and scare the bejesus out of many Democrats and GOPe. I have some doubts we could withstand the first major naval and air losses against a prepared China. Thank God we've got a few years before that starts becoming a real possibility.

    5. "Give a guy a budget and allow him to think "How would Iran/ Al Queda/ISIS/Dr. evil fight?""

      Navy doesn't like the results. Isn't that effectively what Van Riper did in the Millennium Challenge 2002. When his wiped out a whole carrier battle group. The Navy simply altered the rules so they guaranteed a blue (USN attacker) w/o responding to reasons why they lost at all

    6. So he cheated. The thing is it does sound like the USN disliked the fact he acted somewhat like the Serbians just on steroids. Let's recall all the claims for how devastated the Serbian armor were, and the reality was not so rosy. Also during the Iraq war I seem recall Iraq stopped a helicopter assault by using hidden AA units with radars off and ground spotters to inform them of the right moment to open fire. The US forces had taken a predictable route because it expected no opposition nor seeming considered it.

      OK so you say the bikes messengers moved too fast why not replay with a more realistic time rather a massive over correction? The Serbian war might be a good one to re-game. Serbia not not have hit much with its AA missiles but they did do a really good job of snapping on for a shot and hiding. How would that played out with S-300s and S-400 batteries? And no I don't think the S-300/400 is a wonder weapon but the US has not really faced top line air defense in some time.

      Maybe Dhows can't carry AShMs but the problem of missile saturation via whatever means is real one the USN seems to want to ignore. Given the speed of new anti ship missiles the complacency of 'total awareness' and the USN utter lack of CIWS redundancy any game that shows a weakness to swarm missile attacks should get a second look. Iran does build a lot of missile boats and likely is willing to send a lot on a one trip and cram impressive missile loads in tiny boats. Also a smaller boats could carry a lot of different small man portable missiles and even one lucky shot could do some significant damage to USN ship if you are willing to loose a lot of small boats.

      Games are games but complacently is complacently – its worth remembering Yamamoto reset his games about Midway when he did not like the results. Millennium Challenge 2002 cost some 200 million dollars apparently chump change for the Pentagon. Less then the Pentagon likely looses on yearly basis. I would think similar games should be running almost every other year. Make sure red team is retired, US or maybe close trusted allies to buffer own team-ism.

      Although at this point maybe the first full scale fleet problem exercise should be a US NATO one on how to maneuver your ships through congested civilian traffic.

  5. An aquaintance of mine is a serving officer onboard the BLUFOR CVN in the Fleet Problem. According to him, things actually went quite well for them; on day three of the exercise, the umpires had to actually tell the OPFOR where the BLUFOR carrier was, because they had gotten so utterly misdirected, they had utterly lost track of BLUFOR and had no idea where the BLU CVN was.

    To me that says something that cuts two ways: on one hand, the USN apparently still knows how to hide at sea, but on the other hand it seems the USN needs a helluva lot more practice at finding people at sea.

  6. Elephant in the room alert;

    We are so Risk and failure averse that our admirals and officers can't even afford to 'lose' a theoretical training battle. A competent pfor commander risks getting railroaded or lynched because his 'sucesss' means the destruction of the bluefor officers he 'Fights' against.

    We must get back to the place where "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy."

    Right now, the ONLY way a Us ship captain can win, is to NOT fight. She/he is likely to be dismissed if not imprisoned for the mere act of sailing Into a situation that results in ordinance expenditure. Even victories will turn into inquisitions where every Manuever is questioned and every shell and missile and decoy will have to be accounted for.

  7. Im not well versed in Army matters, but I read that they have a training base in the SW that armor units rotate to for wargames. The OPFOR is permanently based there and is fairly brutal and rarely "loses" Obviously open ocean training and wargames are more difficult and much more expensive but the idea of actually having losers is important!! I once participated in a securiry alert drill aboard ship, and a quickly devised and devious plan with my fellow "terrorists" ended up in a takeover of the ship after "killing" the security teams. Word has it that our "tactics" were relayed up the chain to at least the Commodores desk. Afterwards, the drills were much more frequent,and training was much more in-depth and realistic. This is the mentality that needs to be pushed at all levels...!! The cost of those "extra" LCS in the budget maybe should end up in a training/wargames type fund. We are already facing numerical inferiority, so at least lets get maximum effectiveness out of the units we have...

  8. One thing that would be really great to have would be if the USN could somehow emulate the USAF's Red Flag excercises, but i suspect the infrastructure setup would be just too difficult and expensive to setup, and travel times to and from the EX area would be a bitch and a half: aircraft fly twenty times faster than ships sail.

    Say what one will about the USAF, but they do have regular experience of practicing for war: going to Red Flag is treated and trained as if it's a wartime deployment, for all the squadrons involved, from the CO pilot to the lowliest mechanic.


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