The conversation on professional naval issues is alive and well. It happens in many forums and at many levels. From seamen on the mess decks to admirals in the Pentagon, wardrooms to Proceedings, the conversation is happening, but what are we talking about? My feeling is that the conversation is weighted entirely on the strategic level. Heated discussions occur on how many ships should be in the Navy? How many carriers should we have? Is China the next Russia? These are all important conversations that should continue but we are missing something important. Where are the conversations about how best to tactically incorporate new systems like the LCS and the predator drone? Where were the tactical lessons learned from Operation New Dawn? What is the best way to find and approach pirates off Somalia? In the last year there has been a call out to Junior Officers to join the professional discussion. However, the discussion that was happening was at the strategic level. Junior Officers have something to add in that arena as well, but the strategic level issues are not the ones that most JOs handle every day. As a Junior Officer we should be reading, writing, and studying to perfect our knowledge of the tactical employment of whatever platform we are on. That is what the JO discussion should focus on and we as a community are not fostering that discussion.

Naval Officers join the navy to lead sailors and be officers in the profession of maritime war. We did not join Maersk or MSC. Those sailors are excellent at their craft but that is not us. I joined to be a Surface Warfare Officer but I have to seek out the conversation that supports the warfare side of my community. In the CNOs “Sailing Directions” he says that we need “warfighting first, be ready to fight and win today, while building the ability to win tomorrow”. But could we do it if we were called on? We have the platforms but do we know how best to employ them in combat? Instead of talking tactics we have been preparing for the next certification or inspection. While the country has been heavily involved in two land wars, the navy has been largely at peace, and we have gotten complacent in our thoughts.

Twenty-six years ago, Captain Wayne Hughes wrote Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, which is still regarded as one of the preeminent works on Naval Tactics. In it he stated “Good tactics in wartime derive from good tactical study in peacetime” and then went on to state:

Articles on tactics should dominate the Naval Institute Proceedings, as they did in the period from 1900 to 1910. The hard core of the Naval War College curriculum should be naval operations, as it was in the 1930s. War games should stress not merely training and experience but the lessons learned from each game’s outcome, as in the 1920s and 1930s.

I don’t know that tactics need to dominate the entire naval discussion, as with most things in the Navy, it is important to have a “hi low mix”. The discussion also no longer has to be limited to Proceedings. USNI would like to have more discussion on tactics there, but so would the USNI blog, Information Dissemination, CIMSEC, Sailorbob, Small Wars Journal, Alidade and a host of other online forums. This is a huge topic and there is enough to go around for all.

In many of these forums innovation has been a buzzword recently. LT Benjamin Kohlman started a wonderful conversation about Disruptive Thinking and innovation on the Small Wars Journal Blog that has gone viral. I have thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. I agree with many of his points and I do believe that innovation at all levels is important; however, as Wayne Hughes would say, technical innovation without tactical innovation that will incorporate new technologies is useless in naval battle.

One thing that is hindering the open discussion of tactics is the concern that it will endanger classified information. Many believe that it is impossible to have a true discussion of tactics in an unclass forum. This is not true. Those that are in the conversation need to be very careful to know what is and what is not classified but there are plenty of important conversations that can be debated and learned from in an open forum. The use of historical examples, hypothetical environments, and general tactical principles all provide ways to have that open discussion without crossing the boundary into the classified realm.

The conversation on tactical innovation is especially important for the Junior Officers but it should not be limited to them. Senior officers and those that have gone before us have a wealth of knowledge on tactics. They have been there and know where the sinkholes are. Only by learning what has been done before can we keep from making the same mistakes over again. We have the forums. Once again it is time for us to read, think, speak and write about tactics.

Posted by LT Rob McFall in Aviation, Hard Power, History, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Naval Institute, Navy, Proceedings

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  • M. Hipple

    You’re completely right, although I would extend that it goes beyond merely fear of OPSEC and certifications. We as a community have lost the real sense of what “W” in SWO actually means. That certification or that administrative wicket IS perceived as the job or at the very least a legitimate way forward. In a world of wickets, checksheets, and pre-planned programs, the discussion of tactics is more a review of the ‘correct’ answers for a board than an actual discussion of capabilities/limitations and their potential employment. Our plans have become detached from our objectives; we’ve confused the former for the latter. I’d also imagine that, in what you’ve illustrated here, we have a major silent weakness in the area. It’s not just a good idea, it’s critical.

  • Ken Adams

    Can anyone name a surface warfare tactical innovation of the past 30 years, except for the absolute minimum required to operate some new system? Where is the development of new and better ways to use what we already have?
    Does the decommissioning of the Surface Warfare Development Group give us any hope that the surface navy cares about creating new tactics?

  • Terry Kraft

    Great article and very good points. I would take this one step further – where do *integrated* tactics live? That is the purpose of our CSG Advanced Tactics Initiative (CATI) here at NWDC. Working with the fleets and training communities, we have been attempting to put the emphasis back on tactical innovation. As we get new systems, the idea of integrating their capabilities into a tactical whole has never been more important. Anyone who would like to talk some more? Come over to our Junior Leader Innovation Symposium at NWDC 6 June or join the conversation via DCO…I would also offer that CAPT Hughes updated his famous Fleet Tactics book in 2000. The second edition is excellent reading for anyone intersted in advancing the tactical application of surface combat units.

  • Matt C.

    It seems like there needs to be some sort of official schoolhouse which exists for tactics development.

    Why has the surface community not considered a Weapons School approach, similar to what the aviation community has?

  • Ken Bridgewater

    Great article Rob. I remember as a young JO on USS FIRS SHIP we held weekly afternoon “tactical training” in the wardroom. As one would imagine, this unsupervised event quickly devolved from reading the latest TACMEMO to listening to whomever had the best sea story. I don’t know what the answer is, but this is a glaring short coming of our community that requires some TLC.

  • Matt

    Weapons School approach was my thought too (Top Gun). Also gaming. Don’t the ground forces look at virtual reality games? How about a Naval surface warfare type game along the lines of Modern Warfare. Get a few hundred thousand people gaming with real world virtual capabilities and look for tactical lessons. Could be first person or third. Take the current virtual war gaming in Navy simulators to a much larger arena free of any bias.

  • Lest anyone forget, we actually had such as school with a focus on tactics in the Surface Warfare Development Group (SWDG) in Little Creek. It was supposed to be “the center for the development and evaluation of fleet tactics in Surface, Air, Undersea, Electronic, and Amphibious Warfare for today’s complex weapon systems against today’s threat.” SWDG school closed in 2011.

  • Mittleschmerz

    Scott -whenever you want to see how serious the Surface Navy takes something, take a look at who we send somewhere. Where did the SWDG staff come from before their assignment, and where did they transfer to? Staffs populated with future and former loops and commanding officers are different places than those staffed by non-due course officers who at the end of their tours don’t transfer but instead retire or separate from the service.

    Now…not everyone at any command fits either of those bills, but if you want a quick snapshot of the health, take a 10% bio read and you’ll probably get close to determining the relative value of the command to the Navy.

  • Peter Dalton

    The Boxer Rebellion provided the Navy with an opportunity to project American Diplomacy into China before Army could arrive.Navy can be there when force projection is not available, even when and provide land forces right away.

  • Byron

    Matt, there was a board game that was once taught at the Academy and other places like the Citadel. It was (and still is) called “Harpoon”. It is a primer for naval war at sea. There’s a professional version that was sold to the Royal Australian Navy a few years ago. A friend of mine, former Weps on an SSBN used a version on his laptop to do “setups” for his fire control team. He said he got them used to “seeing” the battlespace in a quick and accurate manner. Did good enough that his sub won the Tactical “T” that year. Learning tactics is where you find it. History is a good place to start.

  • Enlistedopinion

    The large scale warfare you are eluding too is a thing if the past. Yes we should be prepared for it but if it is at the end of our threat spectrum do we need to spend large amounts of time and money training to be proficient at it? I think large scale Naval warfare is best kept to simulators. Spend more time on how to support Humalitarian and Disaster relief missions and anti naval piracy.

  • TJ

    since we don’t have the opportunity to practice our present tactics in situ in unscripted exercises, isn’t a discussion of tactics (while important) akin to a football team reviewing or developing a playbook only in the locker room, never testing it on the practice field, much less in a game?

  • Mittleschmerz,

    I completely agree. My point was that the Navy sent an even bigger signal by shutting the command down. On the other hand, I also agree with the posters who argue that table top-only approach is limiting and can stifle innovation. The important thing is to formalize or institutionalize a sustained process for reviewing and evaluating tactics, give it visibility to signal its importance, and devote full-time quality personnel. This can be done in a hundred different ways, using a hundred different innovative techniques, and ideally would be able to quickly gather and evaluate input from the fleet.

    I would love to know how Navy Lessons Learned is being used today – I thought there was a lot of potential to use it to capture new thinking and feedback, but it wasn’t a very agile program or process when I was on USS Last Ship (2 years ago).

  • TheMightyQ


    Even if “large scale warfare” is at the end of our threat spectrum, as you claim, it is the only one that presents an actual threat to Sailors. HA/DR and piracy do not represent an actual threat to the Navy. They solely secondary missions; nice- to-haves in a world absent of real naval conflict. Lest we forget, we are (supposed to be) an actual fighting force. God forbid we do a real wargame scenario, instead of the pre-programmed BS that goes on during the various TEXs.

    Scott C-P,

    Good points and well written. I believe that the Army has a Center for Lessons Learned, if I’m not mistaken. I’m not saying the Navy has to go that route, but it is one model that is currently in place. If the Navy were to do something similar, it would at least indicate that learning from previous mistakes is a priority for the Navy. As I heard at an initial planning conference for an exercise on which I was working, an old LDO very intelligently said something to the effect, “We should really just call them lessons written down. No one ever seems to actually learn anything from them.” Perhaps by formalizing the process, as you suggest, we could make it viable.

  • Mike M.

    Innovation? I think we might do better to review Naval Strategy. You know, the stuff written by Old Guys like Mahan and Corbett, and implemented by Not Quite So Old Guys like Jellicoe and Nimitz.

    Books strangly absent from most Navy Required Reading lists.

    But they’ve got a lot to teach us. The Chinese talk about A2AD. Very nice…but also reminiscent of the plans of the High Seas Fleet prior to the First World War. They figured on the British mounting a close blockade of the German coast, and on picking off British warships with torpedo boats and submarines.

    But Admiral Jellicoe could read a map…and mounted a distant blockade, operating in the English Channel and the Norway-Scotland gap. Outside the range of torpedo boats. Beyond the effective range of German A2AD systems.

    Apply this to the situation with China, and you wind up cutting off their oil supply in the Indian Ocean. Let them try their A2AD games at those distances, overflying India in the bargain. I doubt it will work out as well as they think.

    Innovation is OK for technology…but let’s not forget that technology is the handmaiden of sound strategy, not it’s master.

  • Chuck Hill

    Start by picking some smart “disruptive” thinkers to play “red cell”

  • Rob McFall

    I have gotten a good deal of response to this piece and for that I am grateful. One common comment that I have gotten frequently is that there are schools across the navy that focus on the tactical skills required for that community. In aviation Top Gun and Weapons School. Surface Warfare has Aegis School and Department Head School. These schools do a great job of covering the basics and providing the baseline for all of us to go forward. I offer that that is not enough.

    The Marine Corps does an excellent job of providing a baseline that not only covers the communities, it stretches between the communities. Because every marine is a rifleman, they are able to speak the same language and anticipate the actions of their fellow marines, whether they are in the air or on the ground.

    That is the challenge put forward to the navy. Not only can we as a community step up and have a more robust conversation that brings in junior and senior officers alike, but can we bring in the various communities so that aviators understand what the SWOs are going to do, and SWOs understand what the Submariners are going to do etc.

    Now that the money is drying up, we have to be more effective with what we have, and the best way for us to be more effective is to be a more cohesive group. That means that we need to double down on tactics.

  • Paul P

    There’s no real lesson than having one’s fanny handed to you by an on the ball OPFOR and then having to endure a good AAR. Trouble with ships, planes and subs is that it’s really expensive to get out and run them around. Having infantry mount force on force to learn lessons is a different ballgame.

    Still, it has to be done. I had one of the first iterations of Harpoon for my Mac Classic and I went into it thinking it was a shoot and scoot type of game. I got creamed in the first scenario when Naunchka’s saturated my defenses and blew my Oslo’s out of the water. I got better and learned how to manage sensors, locations and weather systems to my advantage.

    Granted, that’s a computer simulation, but using that as a stepping stone to accurately model war at sea from low intensity to high intensity is a start. Having a red team vs blue team in a simulator with progressively harder scenarios would also engender conversations about how to manage multiple platforms in each battle space. Sometimes the most innovative thinkers don’t wear stars, they wear bars.

  • Dave Schwind


    I’m a bit late to this conversation, but you’re absolutely correct in your blog post. Tactics aren’t discussed – and they should be! This became strikingly apparent to me during exercise JOINT WARRIOR while I was sitting TAO on USS LAST SHIP and we were “sunk” by another DDG…we never even saw them coming! Their actions were completely unexpected and worked exceptionally well. I was professionally embarrassed because what they had done was so simple – I wish I had thought of it! That was back in 2007, and for the rest of my department head tours, my mind churned on the missing key for warfighting: a keen training in, and maintenance of, tactical proficiency.

    Unfortunately, the “reality” of day to day life as a SWO routinely overtakes and removes the “W” from our community name. Manning shortfalls, money issues, broken equipment, inspections, assessments…I can keep going down the list, but we all know what the “priorities” are, and those “priorities” are set from the very top. You know what I mean: God help the CO who gets underway with only one operational engine on a shaft (just in case the other engine fails, and the CO would be forced to actually drive the ship in restricted waters with only single screw…the horror!) or the CO who doesn’t have network connectivity to instantly respond to vital e-mails during sea and anchor detail (you might laugh, but I’ve seen it happen…)

    But what happens to the CO who gets underway whose tactical officers (e.g. all the SWO-qualified officers onboard) aren’t trained in tactical proficiency? What about the CO who can’t guarantee that his or her watchstanders aren’t fluent in every aspect of the ROE in force when entering potentially hostile waters? No one knows how often this happens, but from my experience, I would postulate it happens more often than not. What fate befalls these COs? Nothing. They keep their fingers crossed and hope for the best; and then assume their career will be sunk (perhaps literally) anyway if they actually engage the enemy.

    As SWOs, we envy the tactical schools of our fellow designators and services. We have nothing comparable. A small bit of tactical discussion is tossed in during AEGIS training, but the concentration there is on familiarization with the system. When I went through the TAO course, there were a smattering of tactics, but they had to generalize the classes sufficiently that those future department heads going to LSDs received the same tactical training as those going to DDGs. Unfortunately, despite their best intentions, they missed the boat (sorry for the nautical cliché!)

    I will further opine that many of our current COs do not have the tactical understanding of their predecessors. I was actually thinking of this very topic before leaving for work this morning…today’s COs are people I served with and under when they were DHs and DIVOs. Particularly in the case of the former, I saw them in action in CIC (I tended to end up in CIC for my watchstations during my sea tours) and for the most part (with a couple notable exceptions) they failed miserably in their roles. Not just with tactical prowess, but in their roles as TAOs in general. Did their tactical abilities improve when they assumed the duties as XO and later CO? It’s doubtful.

    What we have is a culture of many COs who did not receive solid tactical training at any point during their careers, nor were they ever held accountable for their lack of warfighting ability. Further, the priorities of those “in power” are not on developing tacticians (otherwise they would have never closed SWDG) but in making the most of the limited resources available, just to maintain ships, let alone fight them. Until there is a change in the point of view and philosophy amongst those in charge, and tactical proficiency is not only desired but used as a metric to assess future command potential, the lack of interest in warfighting will continue. I am afraid to think that the only time their current thought processes might change is after we take the first hit in a battle at sea and the lack of training for multiple generations of SWOs is suddenly (and sadly) apparent.

  • Ken Bridgewater

    While conducting some research I came across the following excerpt from Lisle Rose’s book, Power at Sea: Volume 1, The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918 on pages 27-28 that I found striking.

    “What the Royal did need in 1900 was a reformer. After decades of general peace, England’s seaman fancied themselves more world policemen than members of a warlike institution. “We considered that our job was to guarantee law and order throughout the world,” one officer wrote, to “safeguard civilization, put out fires onshore, and act as a guide, philosopher and friend to the merchant ships of all nations.””

    Does this reflect the general attitude in the US Navy today? And if it does, how do we break out of this malaise and regain our fighting ethos without some creed to memorize and recite at the beginning of each school house day?

  • Chuck Hill

    A potent foe may be the cure

    Fear of death “marvelously focuses the mind.”

  • Paul P

    In 1900 the Brits found Fisher and a developing enemy in Germany. The change in technology from piston ships to big gun turbine ships also provided a real threat to the way traditionalists saw the way to wage war.

    I do think that you’re right– there does seem to be that kind of attitude but what is the new tech/seaborne threat that will change the status quo? Back then it was Dreadnought, what is it today?

  • Everyone can lament the lack of tactical training and exercise but nothing will change until the top leadership changes the Navy’s priorities. Where is CNO Greenert on this? His personal blog states, “Warfighting First” right at the top. Nice slogan. Where’s the tangible evidence? What has CNO done to promote tactical training? When leadership changes its priorities for real (not just a new slogan), you’ll see tactical training but not before.

  • Bill Hatch

    When ASW was peaking in the pacific a lot of tactics were in practice on ASW ships. I think even more so than AAW lpatform. Each ship I served (all CRUDES) on had tactical training but real tactics were taught at TAO school in San Diego and corresponding school in Damneck. I felt far more comfortable on executing the capabilities of CIC and the ship after finishing TAO school. Even brick and mortar SWOS taught TAO which is lacking to any real degree in the new SWOS training at the waterfronts. I concur tactics is more focused strategically than at the ship execution level were SWOs are really learning.

  • Neil Byrne

    Inadequate tactical training of SWOs was a problem for the whole of my 31yr career. If anything, it’s gotten worse. I went on a crusade to fix this in my last three years on active duty, ’96-98, sponsored by my three star boss, VADM Pat Tracey. I was then CO at FCTCPAC. My staff and I researched and developed a briefing titled The Warfighting Ethic. It was an extensive indictment, but just one example. Then the best trained LTs were the combat systems officers in Aegis DDGs. If that officer had been Aegis as a divo, by the time he strode up the gangway to his dept hd tour, he had 40 weeks of tactical training to that pt. His USMC counterpart, cdr of an infantry company, had 83. The USN still lost this comparison by 13 weeks if we substituted the DDG’s CO for the LT and by more than 13 weeks if this bubba or bubbette hadn’t been AEGIS for their whole seagoing career to that pt and fewer than half had been.
    The presento got a lot of play. We gave it to upwards of 200 senior officers including 50+ flags. It was the keynote brief at the CINCLANTFLT general board meeting in ’98 attended by ADM Reason and every flag officer reporting to CLF.
    The last six v/g were a roadmap to fixing the problem and everything on the first five was free.
    Ultimately tho, the result was zero, no progress whatsoever. Pats on the head, thanks that was great.
    One of the last pts we always made started with a question. Is this a training problem, a readiness problem, a personnel distribution problem, a setting priorities problem? Sure; all of the above. But ultimately, this is a morality play. We are borrowing the children of the Republic and it is immoral to send them into combat under poorly trained officers. In my mind, it borders on criminal negligence.

  • Seahawk

    Put any two SWOs in a room, and they will talk about maintenance, not tactics. Unfortunately, I don’t see that fact changing any time soon.