Archive for the 'Hard Power' Category

In an earlier essay , I described how technology will make the future littoral environment even more dangerous and increase the power and reach of smaller ships and shore batteries. I described the need to test and develop flotillas of combat corvettes and other craft and proposed a few platforms currently being built in the United States for use in this experimentation. My article continues the argument originally made by Vice Admiral Cebrowski and Captain Wayne Hughes in their path setting article on the Streetfighter concept. However, successful combat in the littoral environment will have to be a team sport. Fortunately, we have the US Navy and Marine Corps team who can execute this mission, if enabled to develop new capabilities and doctrine to employ them.

This paper is not an argument to kill the Liberty or Freedom class LCS/FF. It is offered for cost and capabilities comparison purposes only as the actual cost data is not for public release. The LCS is a capable mother ship for the operation of other smaller platforms, particularly helicopters. Further the LCS is a cost effective platform for open ocean anti-submarine warfare the corvettes we shall discuss here described here cannot do. We have much more work to do in fully exploring the applications of the LCS/FF.

The United States and her allies require capabilities and doctrines to operate in the littorals to provide on scene presence in areas of controversy such as the South China Seas. By being present we can shape the environment and prevent competitors from achieving effective control using salami slicing tactics and intimidation. If tensions arise to the point of requiring deterrence such forces can provide considerable numbers and resilience as to force an opponent to have to make a serious effort to remove the flotilla supporting littoral outposts. This will reduce the urge for “Use ‘em or Lose ‘em” scenarios which can rapidly escalate. If deterrence fails, these combined forces will pack a considerable punch and contest, if not remove, sea control. Over time such forces operating together could create their own Anti-Access/Area Denial (AA/AD) zone (creating a “No Man’s Sea” where both sides’ zones overlap), gradually advance our own zones and then peel away an opponent’s AA/AD zones.

A truism illustrated in the book The Culture of Military Innovation by Dima Adamsky is genuine revolutions in military affairs do not usually arise out of incremental improvements but in taking new capabilities and systems and employing them in a truly unprecedented configuration. This is the mindset we should adopt when considering how best to employ flotillas of corvettes in littoral environments. Flotillas should not be considered on their own but as part of a combined arms effort. We must change how we think of the design of the corvette and its employment with other joint forces. The flotillas, operated primarily by the Navy, should be supported by littoral outposts operated by Navy Expeditionary Combat Command and United States Marines. Their combination can be very powerful. To take full advantage of them, we must rethink how we operate the combined force. Here I’d like to examine first the flotillas and then the littoral outposts.

An undated photo of the ENS S. Ezzat, an Egyptian Fast Missile Craft. VT Halter Marine Photo

An undated photo of the ENS S. Ezzat, an Egyptian Fast Missile Craft. VT Halter Marine Photo

We must reexamine how we think of the corvette or light frigate. First let us address the definition of Corvette, which historically has ranged between 500 and 2,000 tons in displacement, though there have been variations on this theme. The more important factor is the effect of modern electronics and weapon systems granting smaller platforms enhanced capabilities, similar to what has occurred in aircraft. This provides the ability to adjust to the offensive environment of the sea by the distribution of capabilities in smaller profile platforms, however corvettes measure time on station in days not in the minutes aircraft do.

One of the most dramatic impacts of modern electronics is the increasing ability of smaller platforms to conduct scouting. Aerostats, towed kites, and small UAVs such as Scan Eagle give small platforms capabilities similar to larger platforms operating helicopters, etc. These smaller platforms have no need for the large flightdeck and hangar required for normal helicopter operations. They just need a small flat surface and storage area for rotary drones, nets and launchers for UAVs, or the UAVs can be designed to be recovered from the water. The MQ-8B could potentially be operated from a small flight deck with a small maintenance and storage hanger. This will drive the displacement requirements (and the resulting signature) for such platforms down considerably. Flotillas can then be further augmented in their ocean surveillance (“scouting”) missions by the use of land based aircraft, UAVs, Aerostats, etc. as well as carrier based aircraft operating further back.

Corvettes enabled in this manner can have the same surveillance capacity as any destroyer or frigate. By employing an aerostat or towed kite the corvette would have the ability to suspend a radar system at altitude. Because the power generation is on the ship, the aerostat or kite can have a very capable radar normally seen only in the largest UAVs or on helicopters. Further the greater altitude also provides the ability to control light weight visual sensor enabled UAVs like the Scan Eagle at far greater ranges. Combining the two systems grants the Corvette the ability to conduct surveillance on a large area with the radar locating contacts and the scan eagle visually identifying them. Thus we have gained the same capability which in the past would have required a large flight deck on a destroyer or frigate.

Complementing their scouting capability smaller platforms increasingly will have lethal firepower. The capabilities of anti-ship cruise missiles continue to improve. The distribution of firepower across multiple platforms will mean an enemy has very little opportunity to eliminate such a force without response. Similarly, defensive systems are becoming smaller and more effective. Thus the flotilla force is the littoral element of the Distributed Lethality concept designed for this deadly environment. The limiting factor for the size of corvettes is becoming less dominated by the weapons and more by endurance. Thus it would appear the knee in the curve between competing factors of size, endurance, signature, defensive weapons, offensive weapons, scouting capacity, etc. is between 350 and 800 tons.

The mission of such platforms will be challenging but necessary, particularly in light of aggressive salami slicing lines of operations which require presence to counter. In peacetime, flotillas of corvettes will maintain presence to shape the environment, assure our allies, be observable witnesses to aggression, and train others in conduct of sea control. In an environment of increasing tension, they remain on station to continue scouting, shaping, deterrence and assurance while giving larger signature platforms space to maneuver. At the outset of conflict in a real shooting war they have one mission… attack. Attack like Arleigh Burke planned and Frederick Moosbrugger executed but with updated tactics, techniques, and procedures which enable massed force from distributed forces (See Jeff Cares Distributed Network Operations). Ships will be lost; the question becomes what will be lost when the inevitable hits occur.

While it is tempting to continue the technological trend and employ such small platforms without crews, there are significant limitations which it appears solutions have not arisen. The first is the limitation of control of such vessels. Modern Electronic Warfare means the connections to small platforms will likely be severed. While artificial intelligence has made great advances it does not appear ready, or ready in the near future, to address the challenges and complications of operations at sea specifically for factors such as rules of engagement, fusing information, training allied forces, etc. Robots are not known for their imagination and ingenuity. Further there are considerable sociological prohibitions about lethal force capable platforms operating on their own. Robotics and automation should be designed into such platforms to augment the performance of and decrease the size of the crew, but not replace them. With secure line of sight communications, manned platforms could be teamed with unmanned platforms to provide sensors and firepower.

We need to decrease our dependence on hardkill systems. One of the potential driving factors of increasing the size of such platforms is the compulsion to place Aegis weapons systems on them. We may likely gain the ability to place highly capable sensors on smaller platforms. The move away from transmitting wave tubes on current passive electronically scanned array radars such as SPY-1 to more capable and lighter weight transmit receive tiles used in active electronically scanned array radar systems such as in the APG-81 on the F-35 fighter. However the limitation then becomes one of missile systems, etc. If a force is dependent on hardkill systems, it accepts the risk of not being able to defend itself adequately should active measures fail. Given the proven history of effective electronic warfare, decoys, etc. it would be prudent to take a mixed approach. However, decoy systems, etc. are only as effective as their ability to emulate the intended target. Fortunately, corvettes generally can have very small signatures and other platforms can have even smaller signatures.

Military history shows warships built for niche purposes are very successful in actual wartime though their operators often expand their use outside the original intended mission, thus the need for experimentation.

In the essay in Proceedings, I offered an example for purposes of comparison and analysis, an up-armed variation on the Sentinel class Fast Response Cutter (FRC) as an example of what a combat corvette could offer. Even when doubling the total ownerships costs of the FRC for the modifications described between 12 and 14 FRCs could be owned and operated for the cost of a single LCS and its helicopters. The FRC has an endurance which is competitive with the LCS.

Based on the displacement and design of the FRC, it could be outfitted with two to four ASCMs (perhaps the Naval Strike Missile), the 11 cell SeaRAM system, and decoy system such as the Mark 36 Super Rapid Blooming Offboard Chaff and/or the Rheinmetal Rapid Obscuring System (ROSY). Sensors upgrades would be a navalized version of the APG-81 or other AESA in a rotatable pedestal housing. Offboard sensors would include an aerostat or towed kite system with a surface search radar and/or UAVs similar to the ScanEagle. If these offboard sensor systems cannot be operated together from the same platform, then the corvettes can work in teams.

There are many factors which must be worked out. There may be other platforms more suited or complementary to this role, such as the Mark VI patrol boat, the Stiletto experimental platform, the SeaSlice experimental platform and the Ambassador Class missile boat. The upgunned version of the Sentinel class FRC could perform the role of its namesake, the day to day presence patrol missions in littoral regions, while a platform like the Stiletto would conduct sweeping attack and scouting runs in the event of conflict or the need to conduct a demonstration of resolve. Some of these platforms would not have to be manned. Those conducting high risk missions can be teamed with manned platforms to augment their scouting capabilities and firepower. The important point is the exploration of the concepts, tactics, techniques, procedures, and doctrine in wargames, campaign analysis, and fleet exercises to understand the impact advancing technology is having on naval warfare.

One threat to flotillas of corvettes is enemy submarines. Submarines would have some challenges tracking and effectively employing torpedoes against corvettes due to their small size, speeds, etc. Submarines would have to make modifications to their combat systems and torpedoes to address the flotilla. Submarines’ best opportunity to attack the flotilla would be in chokepoints. The flotillas can have an effective means of negating the submarine. Without sonar, it would appear the corvettes are very vulnerable, but simple tactics can negate the effectiveness of a submarine. As the flotilla approaches a littoral chokepoint they launch lightweight torpedoes pre-emptively in a snake search pattern in the direction of travel. The submarine will likely abort any effective targeting and have to run. Given the high rate of false positive contacts likely to be produced in littoral environments, just as many torpedoes would likely be expended by conventional ASW ships with sonar systems, etc. The number of torpedoes expended can be greatly reduced by the contribution of other forces as will be describe below.

The employment of flotillas of corvettes is only one element in how we need to approach littoral warfare. Equally, if not more, important to success in littoral conflicts is the employment of combined arms. The Proceedings essay briefly touched on the concept of Littoral Outposts as contributors to the effectiveness of flotillas. Such outposts deserve further exploration as they can contribute significantly to the success of future military conflicts and competitions.

Littoral Outposts composed of combined Navy, Marine Corps and other joint/coalition forces can contribute greatly to sea control. The Proceedings essay has already described how such forces can contribute to sea control employing shore based anti-ship cruise missiles, sensors, UAVs, etc. This is only the beginning. Such teams can contribute to ASW, AAW, and strike. Using denial, deception, hardening and mobility in the littoral environment these teams can present a difficult challenge to a competitor. All this would be accomplished by employing new technologies in new and innovative ways.

Littoral Outposts can have a significant impact on Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). We’ve discussed organic responses from corvettes to submarines, but the littoral outpost can greatly reduce the threat of submarines to corvettes and other platforms. The simplest and most conventional solution is the employment of Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) for submarine hunting helicopters. Such helicopters can be stationed ashore or aboard ships operating further back (such as the LCS). Technology also offers effective and innovative approaches to littoral ASW. Littoral outpost can launch a swarm of UAVs employing sensors to conduct grid searches of submarines or minefields in chokepoint areas. When a target is detected and prosecution is initiated the drones could potentially drop charges or these could be launched from shore based mortars. The charges can be very deadly to a submarine as demonstrated by the Hedgehog ASW mortar in World War II. In addition to the MAD UAVs, forces ashore can launch small Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs) which act as mobile sonobuoys. The effectiveness of such systems can be greatly enhanced by the survey of such chokepoints in peacetime to identify wrecks and other metallic objects which could generate false positives, etc. In times of crisis, Littoral Outposts and corvettes can work together to plant mines in the chokepoints thus creating a dangerous environment for submarines to operate in.

Littoral Outposts can have a significant impact on Anti-Air Warfare (AAW). Corvettes are vulnerable to Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft (MPRA). If allowed unfettered access to an area, MPRA has the ability to eventually find and pick out of the clutter small craft like corvettes and deliver weapons or direct weapons and platforms to kill them. The key to the success of the MPRA is time and unfettered access. Littoral outpost can nullify this in different ways. First we noted the size of a corvette limits the size (and therefore range) of surface to air missile systems. So while advanced light weight AESA radars can give a corvette the ability to search and locate MPRA, they don’t necessarily have the weapons which can reach out and touch them or drive them off. Littoral Outposts can be armed with such long range weapons and employ either their own air search radars or employ cooperative engagement systems to guide off the corvette’s track. Littoral Outposts can also employ short takeoff and landing aircraft such as the F-35B. If employing land based radars the Littoral Outposts can disperse the sensors and missiles so as to retain one when the other is destroyed. Or they can remain silent and be queued from land based aerostats or airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft flying from aircraft carriers or air bases further back. Just the knowledge surface to air missiles or aircraft may be hidden in Littoral Outposts can effectively nullify MPRA which are very vulnerable to such weapons and platforms. Taking advantage of denial, deception, hardening, and mobility Littoral Outposts can present a threat to enemy aircraft which is difficult to find, fix, and finish. However, MPRA do not enjoy the same environment when they are radiating to locate small ships in the clutters of the littorals.

Littoral Outposts can make significant contributions to strike. Marine and Navy Expeditionary forces working together can deliver offensives strike operations to sea or land. Employing mobile launchers such as High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) with different weapons (and increasingly in the future weapons which can change roles) Littoral Outposts can deliver fires to affect ships at sea and targets on land. The same HIMARS employed to launch surface to surface missiles can also launch surface to air missiles today. Many Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) today can also perform land attack missions. Again the F-35B provides similar opportunities.

Combining flotillas of corvettes with Littoral Outposts and littoral transportation platforms like powered barges, the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV), Landing Craft Utility (LCU), and Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM); the US can create mutually supporting elements to conduct maneuver in the littoral environment. Employing denial, deception, rapid hardening (digging in), and mobility, joint forces can advance in the littoral environment in the face of Anti-Access Area Denial (AA/AD) capabilities in the hands of potential adversaries. Littoral Outposts operated by, with, and through allies create AA/AD zones of our own. Behind these AA/AD zones we can then operate higher profile platforms such as aircraft carriers, etc. From these zones, flotillas of corvettes and other seaborne platforms sortie out to conduct sea control/denial and strike operations. From these zones, Littoral Outposts conduct support and strike operations. Once the environment has been shaped, the littoral outpost forces advance with the support of the conventional navy and flotillas. The Littoral Outposts then create new forward AA/AD zones behind which the process advances continues.

As the combined force advances their AA/AD zones advance and enable the attrition of an opponent’s AA/AD system, particularly the sensors (such as MPRA) necessary to enable them. This process will gradually wear down an opponent’s AA/AD system. If our opponents have become too reliant upon AA/AD, they will find themselves in a vulnerable position. Thus in time a combined force can contribute to the peeling away of AA/AD systems and gain maneuver space for the fleet near an opponent’s shore.

A combined arms approach to littoral combat can be very effective. We should be taking advantage of the trends in weapons and how they enhance the lethality and reach of smaller and smaller ships and shore batteries. In essence we must expand the Distributed Lethality concept to embrace our USMC and NECC capabilities in the littoral threat environment. However, to be effective and achieve true revolutions will require changing the way we employ these systems and capabilities. By employing combined arms of flotillas and littoral outposts we and our allies can confront potential opponents with a powerful deterrence force. These forces can enable us to shape events and prohibit aggressive behaviors in peacetime. As crises arise, they provide a resilient force which cannot easily be defeated thus providing stability. Finally in actual combat they provide a deadly threat which can support the larger fleet objectives by contesting and peeling away an opponent’s AA/AD network.

Here we have only addressed the outlines of what the Navy-Marine Corps team’s potential for combined arms in the littorals. We should conduct wargames, experimentation, and analysis to explore the options more fully and identify what other joint capabilities can contribute to this deadly environment. These combined forces should be able to provide commanders with options to address an opponent’s competitive actions in pre-hostilities, deterrence, and if required open warfare. Much more work needs to be done if we are going to remain viable in this new deadly environment.

hqdefaultIf you have not already, you need to read one of the more important wake up calls written by a navalist this year; Bryan McGrath’s remarks published over at WarOnTheRocks, War and Survivability of U.S. Naval Forces.

It will come to no surprise to those who read my post last week, that I am roughly in full alignment with the direct and unblinking comments he brings to the reader;

(in the post-Cold War era) …we built and operated a Navy in the post-Cold War era that reflected this. We created a fleet architecture that raised defense to a high art. We became proficient in the art of precision land-attack and maritime constabulary missions while the surface force essentially abandoned the playing field of offensive naval warfare. Because there was no anti-submarine warfare threat to speak of, we walked away from the mission while turning our sonar techs into .50 cal gunners and visit, board, search, and seizure crew. We walked away from the anti-surface mission to the point where we haven’t built a ship in the United States that could kill another ship over the horizon since USS Porter in 1999.

That is where we find ourselves by our own hand, and this is where we need to go;

We have to be begin to be more direct about what we face. We have to recognize that our unchallenged mastery is now challenged. We now have to recognize that there are nations who see the system we’ve crafted since World War II as unhelpful to their strategic goals. We have to recognize that in order to deter nations like this, naval forces operating weeks over the horizon are insufficient. We must recognize that presence, showing the flag, being there, is just not enough.

Distributed lethality is the leading edge of that recognition. By increasing the unit-level lethality of virtually every ship in the Navy and then operating them innovatively in a dispersed posture designed to present an adversary with numerous and diverse threats to what he holds dear, we are once again realizing the deterrent value of offensive power. The surface force seems to have recognized the changed environment, the re-emergence of great power dynamics, and the requirement to break a defensive mindset while taking to the operational offensive once again. Future strike group commanders and numbered fleet commanders and four-stars must begin to think about and more importantly communicate a recognition that the stakes have changed, and that a force that places too much value on survivability may be placing insufficient emphasis on threatening the other guy’s survivability.

We need to harden surface presence forces not just for the sake of protecting the people serving on the ship, but also to present would-be aggressors with a more effective deterrent. We need — when we talk about survivability — to ensure that we are talking about it as a means to an end — conventional deterrence — and not an end unto itself

Finally, I want to try and get something going here with you. I’d like us to stop talking about “survivability” altogether. That’s right — eliminate it from our lexicon. When you folks go back to your jobs wherever they may be, but especially at the Pentagon, the systems commands, or at the surface type command, try to get the Navy to walk away from it. Truth be told, it is a loaded term, and one that conveys defense and weakness and timidity. The Air Force — which has a much tougher job in justifying the expense of large land bases that don’t move — never talks about “survivability.” They talk about “hardening,” as I’ve done here today.

We need to harden the surface force in order to make our adversaries spend more of their tax dollars in trying to overcome it — or better yet — decide that such expenditures aren’t worth the opportunity cost. This is, of course, the essence of conventional deterrence.

He brings a lot more to the discussion. Read it all.


Click to enlarge

Summer, 1777: Two objects made from gunpowder-filled kegs and tied together with line drifts alongside the British frigate Cerberus near the Connecticut coast. Sailors in a captured schooner tied alongside attempt to recover the objects. All at once, an explosion destroys the schooner and kills most of the sailors. These were the first mines, invented by David Bushnell (of Turtle fame). This is the beginning of the story of naval mine warfare.

Naval mine warfare has a history as old as the United States. From its beginning in the workshop of David Bushnell through to today’s Quickstrike mines and Littoral Combat Ships, many events formed the story of mine warfare development. These are the ten mining campaigns that have had the biggest impact on shaping mine warfare.

1. Crimean War

In 1854, England led a coalition of Great Powers nations against Russia in response to a Russian attack against Turkey. Naval forces assaulted Russian ports in both the Baltic and the Black Sea. To counter these forces, Russia ordered over a thousand contact mines developed by inventor Immanuel Nobel. In the Baltic, these mines deterred the British from attacking Kronstadt, thus preventing an attack on the Russian capital of St. Petersburg.

Matters were different in the Black Sea. As in their Baltic ports, the Russians laid electrically-fired, controlled mines in the waters surrounding Sevastopol. The British neutralized this threat by quickly capturing the mines’ shore-based firing stations. Largely improvised, the moored contact mines in the surrounding waters proved more nuisance than threat. Most could be neutralized using men operating from small boats.

The Crimean War represented the first case of large-scale, military-sponsored mining. Just as importantly, military observers from many nations were on hand to learn the value of these weapons. Russian successes in mining led many nations to begin developing their own mine warfare programs. Mining may never have taken root as a serious tool of warfare had it not been for the Crimean War.

2. Civil War

Union torpedo raft in Mobile Bay. Naval Institute photo archive

Union torpedo raft in Mobile Bay illustrated in a contemporary lithograph. Naval Institute photo archive

With long, navigable rivers and a tiny navy, the Confederacy was vulnerable to waterborne attack. Mines proved a cheap and effective way to stop the Union ironclads. USS Cairo, a large ironclad, became the first major war vessel lost to a mine when it struck a moored contact mine on the Yazoo River in 1862. Continued mine-strikes induced Union captains and admirals to devise methods to counter these weapons. Despite their mine countermeasure (MCM) efforts, Confederate mines sank a total of 29 Union ships, and damaged 14 more before the war ended.

During the assault on Mobile Bay, RADM David Glasgow Farragut famously said, “Damn the torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead!” The target of his order was the captain of the second ship in his column entering the Bay, who stopped when the ship ahead struck a mine. Farragut did not show flippant disregard for the danger posed by mines. Over the previous three nights, he had men clear a channel through the minefield. The ironclad that sank was on the wrong side of the marker buoy. Farragut based his order on a calculated risk decision to continue ahead through the cleared channel.

The Civil War demonstrated to the world the value of the naval mine as a major weapon of war. At the same time, it taught the world lessons about the importance of developing mine countermeasures. These lessons led to mine warfare developments worldwide, paving the way for the future of mine warfare.

3. Russo-Japanese War

Japanese sailors inspect captured Russian sea mines during the Russo-Japanese War. Naval Institute photo archive

In 1904-1905, Russia and Japan fought a war for control of Korea and Manchuria. As a warm-water port, Port Arthur on the Manchurian coast was a major base for the Russian Pacific Fleet. Russia mined its sea approaches to keep out their enemies. Japan reversed this tactic with the innovation of laying mines in Port Arthur’s harbor approaches to keep the Russian fleet in port.

On April 12, 1904, Russian destroyers set out to scout and clear Japanese mines laid the night before. When one destroyer encountered part of the enemy fleet, Russian Admiral Makaroff sent his fleet to attack. Crossing over the freshly laid mines, they successfully beat back their enemies. Victory was short lived. While returning to port, Makaroff’s flagship, the battleship Petropavlovsk, struck a mine and sank in two minutes with the admiral on board. A second battleship struck a mine shortly afterwards. Deprived of its fighting admiral and two battleships, the Russian fleet remained effectively blockaded until the city was ready to fall. Through mining, the Japanese had wrested control of the sea from their adversaries.

Drifting mines laid in the open ocean during the Russo-Japanese War continued to float around the Pacific for years afterwards, posing a significant hazard to ships of all nations. These hazards led to the Hague Convention of 1907. Meeting to develop rules for the use of mines in war, this convention established many limits that remain in effect to this day.

4. World War I: Dardanelles Campaign (1915)

Replica Turkish minelayer of the type used in the Dardanelles campaign.

Replica Turkish minelayer of the type used in the Dardanelles campaign

The Gallipoli Campaign was an attempt by the Allies to break through the Ottoman defenses on the Dardanelles in Turkey to free shipping routes to Russia and to raise regional support to the Allied cause. To counter this attempt, the Turks laid 11 mine lines protected by nearly 100 artillery pieces in the narrowest stretch. The British minesweepers, converted trawlers manned with civilian crews, were unable to operate in the face of the heavy bombardment. After two weeks of unsuccessful sweeping at night under constant assault while illuminated with searchlights, the British admiral decided to do an all out effort of daytime sweeping with battleships providing close support.

On 18 March, the British battle force destroyed many fortifications while absorbing nearly every heavy shell remaining in the Turkish arsenal. Then things went wrong. Unknown to the Allies, on the night of 7 March, a single Turkish minelayer laid a line of 20 mines in the battleships’ turning area. At the height of the 18 March battle, the Allied battleships turned in their usual area and immediately struck the new mine line. Within a very short time, the 20 mines caused the loss of 3 battleships and one battle cruiser. That one mine-line may have been arguably the most cost effective method ever used to damage a fleet.

The Dardanelles campaign showed the power of a layered defense containing mines and it illustrated the need to protect MCM forces. Most importantly, it underlined the value of using intelligence in mining.

5. World War I: North Atlantic

Mines on the deck of a British destroyer. Naval Institute photo archive

Mines on the deck of a British destroyer in World War I. Naval Institute photo archive

The mining campaigns of World War I represented a major advance in how countries used mines, introducing a a number of innovations in both mining and MCM that are still in use. It saw the first use of submarine mining, the first Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW) fields, and the first large-scale mining and MCM effort.

German U-boats posed a major threat to Allied shipping during this war. At first, British attempts to mine the English Channel proved ineffective, as submarines slipped over the mine fields in the darkness. The British remedied the situation with powerful searchlights and aggressive patrolling. Later in the war, the Allies attempted to seal off the North Sea in a major mining campaign called the North Sea Mine Barrage. At the total mining and MCM cost of $80 million, the barrage included 70,000 mines in a field stretching from Scotland to Norway. After the war, 82 minesweepers worked 18 hour days for five months clearing these mines.

Mining and MCM technology both advanced during the war. Germany first used submarine mining soon after the United States entered the war. U-boats built with inclined mine tubes laid mines off several American ports on the eastern seaboard. The American Mark 6 antenna mine used a copper wire suspended above the mine that caused the mine to detonate when it contacted a steel hull. A major British advance was the Oropesa sweep, which allowed a single ship to sweep instead of connecting with other ships in a team sweep.

6. World War II: New Technology

Minesweeping in the South Pacific in 1944. Naval Institute photo archive

Minesweeping in the South Pacific in 1944. Naval Institute photo archive

World War II kick-started the development of most of today’s technology and tactics. Allies and Axis powers alike used mines on a global scale during the war. In the Pacific, the Japanese laid large barrier minefields to limit the ability of American submarines to freely access their sea lines of communication. America eventually overcame this obstacle by charting the minefields and developing mine-avoidance sonar equipment.

In the Atlantic theater, belligerents on both sides aggressively created mining and MCM technology. Before and during the war, both sides developed influence mines and influence minesweeping technology. World War II saw the first widespread operational use of mines triggered by magnetic, acoustic, and/or pressure signals. Such mines proved far more dangerous than contact mines, for they could damage ships at a distance and were harder to counter. At Balikpapan in Dutch Borneo, the U.S. minesweeping force lost seven YMS minesweepers during clearance efforts in June 1945. Despite having wooden hulls, their engines were enough to detonate the American-laid magnetic mines. These and earlier incidences led to the expediting the use of full magnetic and acoustic silencing when constructing MCM ships.

Aerial mining was perhaps the most important innovation of World War II. In the Pacific the Allies used extensive mining into their island-hopping strategy. Airplanes could rapidly close Japanese-controlled ports throughout Southeast Asia at a relatively low cost in men and equipment. This allowed the Allies to neutralize the well-defended ports and concentrate on the lightly defended ports.

7. World War II: Operation Starvation

B-29 Superfortress dropping mines in a Japanese harbor in World War II. Naval Institute photo archive

B-29 Superfortress dropping mines in a Japanese harbor in World War II. Naval Institute photo archive

The mining campaign known as Operation Starvation is one of only two uses of true strategic mining in American history. Intended to end the war, Operation Starvation involved using aerial mining to shut down most or all shipping to and from the Japanese home waters.

Japan was and is dependent on imports to support its population and its industry. During WWII, most of its iron and oil arrived by sea. Almost all of the shipping destined for the nation’s east coast and its inland sea had to pass through the Shimonoseki Strait. The volume of Japan’s shipping, and its predictable route, made the country especially vulnerable to naval mines.

In April 1945, B-29 bombers began systematically mining Japan’s shipping routes. Beginning with the Shimonoseki Strait, they dropped 1,000- and 2,000-lb bottom influence mines at all of the major choke points in the inland sea and most of the southern and eastern ports. By July they had laid approximately 12,000 mines, completing a virtual blockade of Kyushu and Honshu and reducing shipping by 90%. Twenty-six years after the war, over 2,000 mines remained despite continuous Japanese sweeping efforts. After the war, many experts agreed that had this mining campaign commenced earlier, the war might have finished earlier, without atomic bombs.

Operation Starvation showed the value of strategic mining in helping to bring a war to an end. Almost as importantly, it highlighted just how much MCM effort is required after a major mining campaign.

8. Korean War – Wonsan Harbor

USS YMS-516 is blown up by a magnetic mine, during sweeping operations west of Kalma Pando, Wonsan harbor, on 18 October 1950. National archives photo

A magnetic mine detonates and destroys USS YMS-516 during sweeping operations west of Kalma Pando, Wonsan harbor, on 18 October 1950. National archives photo

In October 1950, United Nations forces conducted an amphibious landing at Wonsan, North Korea. The UN assault force included American, South Korean, and Japanese minesweepers. Expecting limited mining at choke points, naval leaders planned for only 10 days to clear mines. As it turned out, the harbor was a nightmarish mixed minefield of both bottom and ground mines. By the time amphibious forces reached the shore a week past schedule, four minesweepers were sitting on the bottom as a result of mine strikes. When the amphibious force finally landed, they found comedian Bob Hope on hand to greet them with a USO show.

Wonsan was important because it revealed just how ill-prepared the America was for post-WWII mine clearance. Following WWII, America discharged it’s primarily reservist mine warfare forces and reduced its MCM force from 374 ships in the Pacific alone down to a mere 37 worldwide. At the same time Russia built a dedicated professional mine warfare force. North Korea benefited greatly from Russia’s mine program. North Korean forces had laid Wonsan’s minefields with the help of Russian mining experts and Russian magnetic and contact mines. Using primitive craft to lay mines, they built a minefield consisting of 3,000 mines crammed into a 400 square nautical mile area.

Following the Korean War, Congress poured money into mine warfare. By the end of the decade, the country had built 65 new oceangoing minesweepers, two MCM command ships (MCS), two pressure- and check-sweeping ships (MSS), an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) MCM squadron, and innumerable minesweeping boats (MSB) and minesweeping launches. While the size of this force did not last, its concepts led to today’s diverse MCM force composition.

9. Vietnam War

Operation End Sweep, clearing mines after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. Naval Institute photo archive

Operation End Sweep, clearing mines after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. Naval Institute photo archive

Rivers bisect Vietnam at dozens of different points. During the Vietnam War, these rivers were natural highways into the interior, allowing armed gunboats to attack North Vietnamese supply lines. Knowing this, Vietnamese fighters mined the rivers with a wide variety of mines. American gunboats traveling these rivers frequently encountered shallow water minefields protected by heavy shore-based gunfire. Using rapidly developed equipment, the U.S. forces had to counter these fields using armored, armed, nonmagnetic MSB’s supported by aircraft and gunboats.

The North Vietnamese Army was not alone in mining the rivers. American planes dropped magnetic naval mines in the areas surrounding the river crossings used by northern troops. At these points, mines had the ability to target both supply boats and supply vehicles. Furthermore, some aerial mines could be laid virtually anywhere along the trails, creating a hazard for any vehicles moving south.

In May 1972, U.S. forces mined Haiphong harbor, the major port through which 85% of seaborne supplies reached North Vietnam. This resulted in a relatively quick peace agreement, with a major stipulation that the United States was required to clear this minefield. Unbeknownst to the Vietnamese, the United States had set their mines to allow for easy cleanup.

The Vietnam War showed the value of maintaining the technology to clear mines in shallow water. It also introduced destructor-type mines, the predominated style now used by the American military. Finally, it showed the world once more the value of strategic mining.

10. Middle-East Mining

An Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician examines an Iraqi mine that washed ashore in the Kuwaiti port of Ash Shuaybah during the Gulf War in 1991. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

An EOD technician examines an Iraqi mine that washed ashore in the Kuwaiti port of Ash Shuaybah during the Gulf War in 1991. Naval Institute Photo Archive

There was no one, single mining campaign in the last few decades that has significantly shaped mine warfare. Instead, it is the collective mining efforts of a few despotic Middle-Eastern governments that together shaped today’s mine warfare forces.

During the 1980’s, state-sponsored terrorism became a dominant force in the world. In the summer of 1984, at least 16 ships passing through the Red Sea received damage from underwater explosions. Believed to be the work of Libya, the fact that these mines did not produce greater damage is mainly because of improper settings. An international coalition quickly came together to clear this vital waterway, a practice repeated in all following middle-eastern mine clearance efforts.

The Tanker War was a conflict between Iran and Iraq. Both sides repeatedly attacked each others’ merchant shipping in the Arabian Gulf. When one of Iran’s mines heavily damaged the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58), the United States retaliated with attacks on Iranian naval vessels and oil platforms in Operation Praying Mantis.

In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. To protect against amphibious invasion, Iranian forces laid more than 1,200 mines in two belts off the Kuwaiti coast. Two ships, USS Princeton (CG-59) and USS Tripoli (LPH-10), took heavy damage from mines as the MCM task force moved in to commence clearance operations. Following the war, a coalition of 11 nations working long hours for six months cleared a total 1,288 mines – a number exceeding Iraqi reports of 1,157 mines laid.

Operation Iraq Freedom (OIF) ended far differently in part because strike forces destroyed or captured Iraqi mine laying vessels. Mining was mainly limited to Iraqi coastal waters and the port of Umm Qasr. This showed the potential benefit of the offensive MCM concept.


Navies worldwide equip and train based on the expectations formed by recent experience. Mine warfare is no different. The experiences gleaned from the Middle Eastern mining campaigns of the last few decades very much shaped today’s mine warfare forces.

What sort of lessons might the navies of the world glean from clearing the Middle Eastern minefields? Some may assume that future conflicts will be the same way: No ships destroyed, mining restricted to single areas, uncontested battlespace, uncomplicated environments and plenty of allies to help. With no mine strikes since 1991, it is easy to forget the danger of mines in the face of other perceived threats.

On the mining side, recent history gives an even more simplified story. Since World War II, naval mining has been limited to fairly shallow littoral waters, rivers, and land. The last major mining campaign by anybody was 25 years ago. If one compared weapons systems by usage, mines seem to have limited value, and would appear to only be required in small quantities and with limited depth requirements. With no competing naval powers at war in the last 70+ years, mines appear to be a weapon system of the past.

History tells a different story about naval mine warfare. When naval powers fight, mines can be a game changer. They can keep enemy warships locked in port, they can restrict an enemy’s movements, and they can destroy an enemy’s shipping. When the enemy depends on the sea for supplies, mines can be used to choke their industry and to drive them out of a war. Naval mining can happen everywhere from rivers to deep water, and in all kinds of environments. Should the enemy succeed in laying a major minefield, MCM forces can expect to work for months or years clearing mines. In the course of long, dangerous operations, ships will be lost and the job will become much harder.

Mines, according to history, can help a country to either gain – or lose – control of the sea.


Tamara Moser Melia, “Damn the Torpedoes”: A Short History of U.S. Naval Mine Countermeasures, 1777-1991, (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1991).

Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History, (New York: Picador, 2010).

Norman Youngblood, The Development of Mine Warfare: A Most Murderous and Barbarous Conduct, (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006).

Milton F. Perry, Infernal Machines: The Story of Confederate Submarine and Mine Warfare, (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1965).

Christopher Martin, The Russo-Japanese War, (New York: Abelard-Schuman Limited, 1967).

Robert Forczyk, Russian Battleship vs Japanese Battleship: Yellow Sea 1904-05, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2009).

Geoffrey Jukes, The Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002).

E. B. Potter, Sea Power: A Naval History (2nd Ed.), (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981).

Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003).

Dan Van Der Vat, The Dardanelles Disaster: Winston Churchill’s Greatest Failure, (New York: The Overlook Press, 2009), pp. 1-5. H. M. Denham, Dardanelles: A Midshipman’s Diary, (London: John Murray Ltd., 1981).

Captain J. S. Cowie, Mines, Minelayers and Minelaying, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).

Gregory K. Hartmann, Weapons That Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979).

Barrett Tillman, Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan 1942-1945, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

LCDR Paul McElroy, USNR, The Mining of Wonsan Harbor, North Korea in 1950: Lessons for Today’s Navy, (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps War College, 1999).

Edward J. Marolda & Robert J. Schneller Jr., Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998).

CDR David D. Bruhn, USN(Retired), Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The U.S. Navy’s Ocean Minesweepers, 1953-1994, (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2006).

Gordon E. Hogg, “Minesweepers and Minehunters.” In S. C. Tucker (Ed.), U.S. Conflicts in the 21st Century: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, and the War on Terror, (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2015).

The ongoing discussion of the meaning of “distributed Lethality” and methods of achieving it at sea is a welcome return to a more forward leaning posture. By its nature, it assumes a more aggressive navy – as all successful navies have been. There is another side to this posture, something that is always there but becomes more apparent with a stronger light thrown on the subject. As the cliche goes, the enemy gets a vote. The enemy gets to shoot back.

There are certain timeless fundamentals of the naval service that historically applied to the US Navy in its operations; offensive punch, forward through the fight, and an acceptance that we will lose ships and Sailors, yet complete our mission in spite of it.

Besides the small isolated incident or skirmish, the realities of war at sea have not been known in the present generations’ living memory – only on the edge of rapidly evaporating national memory is it there. As such, do we really have an understanding of what it means to put your ships, your capital ships, in harm’s way? That is what “forward deployed” means. That is what “From the Sea” implies. That is what “presence” requires. Have we become too comfortable, complacent, and entitled in our maritime dominance to think that Neptune’s Copybook Headings no longer apply?

In all the wargames we go through, in our discussions about the next conflict at sea with a peer or near-peer challenger – have we fully hoisted onboard what this means?

What does it mean to lose a capital ship? First, we must define a capital ship. In WWII, the capital ship was the battleship and the large-deck aircraft carrier. The German battleship BISMARCK, the British battlecruiser HMS HOOD, the American heavy cruiser USS HOUSTON (CA 30), and the aircraft carrier USS FRANKLIN (CV 13) all met that war’s rough definition of a capital ship. Three of the above were lost in combat, and the 4th, the FRANKLIN, just survived sinking from same.

War at sea is brutal, often fast, and the destruction of men and material shockingly extensive. It does not matter if it was 31 BC, 1942 AD or 2020 AD, this will be the same. As it was, as it is, as it will be.

What is a capital ship today? For the sake of argument, let me pick two that most of you would agree is if not a capital ship, then at least a High Value Unit. First, the USS RONALD REAGAN (CVN 76) and the USS BATAAN (LHD 5). For planning purposes, let’s assume that the REAGAN’s ship company and attached airwing composes 5,680 souls. The BATAAN, fully loaded with Marines, 3,002.

Let’s look at the average loss rates from our selection of WWII capital ships. Not the worst, just the average. What would that mean today? What loss of life in one day? A loss that cannot stop operations or shock anyone – indeed must be planned for as we know it will happen at one point?

Well, here is the graph that tells the butcher’s bill.


One could argue that the most difficult part of the loss of a CVN or LHD with a full wartime complement on par with other capital ships lost at sea would not be the operational or tactical implications, but the political implications. Do we have the PAO, INFO OPS, and even PSYOPS pre-planned responses well rehearsed and, yes, focus grouped to deal with such an immediate loss? If not, we are at national strategic risk poking our nose anywhere.

Look at the LHD numbers; 2,183 dead in one day. That is just a little more than all the losses of the USA and UK in Iraq during the three years bounded by 2006, 2007, & 2008 – combined.

The loss of a carrier? That would be roughly the same as all the USA and UK losses in Iraq in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, & 2009 – combined.

In almost any scenario such a loss would take place, there would be no time to pause, consider, or debate. You have to fight on – indeed, you need to assume such losses and plan around it.

Are we prepared for this as a Navy? Has the Navy properly prepared our political bosses? Are they prepared to respond to the citizens’ reaction?

We should all hope so, as history tells us that is not a matter of if, but when.

Please join us at 5pm (EDT) on 22 May 2016 for Episode 333: The Battle of Jutland & the Time of the Battleship with Rob Farley:

We are coming up on the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Jutland.

Stop for a moment, close your eyes, and then tell me what image comes to mind.

If your image is of a huge mass of steel coming at you out from the mist at 25-knots belching out sun-blocking clouds of coal-smoke and burned black powder and searing fingers of flame pushing tons of armor-piercing explosives, then this is the show for you.

For the full hour this Sunday we will have as our guest a great friend of the show, Robert Farley. We will not only be discussing the Battle of Jutland, but battleships in general in the context of his most recent book titled for clarity, The Battleship Book

Rob teaches defense and security courses at the Patterson School of Diplomacy at the University of Kentucky. He blogs at InformationDissemination and LawyersGunsAndMoney. In addition to The Battleship Book, he is also the author of, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force.

Join us live if you can or pick the show up later by clicking here. You can also find the show later at our iTunes page here or at Stitcher.

Due to circumstances beyond his control, Mr. Roggio had to postpone his visit with Midrats. He will appear at a later date. In lieu of his appearance, CDR Salamander and Eagle1 held a “free for all” discussion of current events.

You can find our “Spring Time Free-for-All” here.

We regret any inconvenience.



Presence vs Posture

April 2016


A military that faces budget constraints must make choices. The US military is no exception. Is it more important that we fund a large force that can build relationships and spread out over every potential conflict zone? Or should we instead invest in capabilities that will make our individual units more lethal and survivable? In other words, do we build a lot of the assets we know how to build, or do we instead develop better assets that we can build in the future? Secretary of Defense Carter has referred to this debate in terms of posture vs presence (advanced future-forces vs large current-forces).

The fundamental question of this debate is whether war is more likely now or in the future. If we knew we had 50 years until a large conventional conflict, most would advocate investing in capability. That would allow us to build more effective forces for when we needed them. On the other hand, if we knew we only had 1 year, it would not be prudent to divert current readiness in favor of capabilities that wouldn’t be available in time.

The United States’ modern defense establishment has faced one real peer-competitor: the USSR. They posed a threat that was felt viscerally by the populace and the military that defended them. If there was ever a challenge that dictated a large number of ready forces, it was the Cold War. New technologies always had to be researched, but they would be useless if the operational forces couldn’t win a war that day.

When we look at a graph of US defense research spending as a percentage of total defense spending, this pattern is clear. Time periods where the blue line is below the red are when research spending was lower than the historical average.


Data from SIPRI and AAAS

From the early-60s to the mid-80s, when the Soviet threat was large and immediate, research took a back seat to presence. Regular military spending outpaced research spending by a greater than normal amount. Then, America woke up in the 90s to a peerless world. Presence took a back seat to capability. The US military had breathing space to begin to think about the future. It used that breathing space to fund the technologies that would power a networked military that has yet to be seriously challenged in conventional warfare in the post-Cold War era.

In the 21st century, China has replaced the Soviet Union as the threat that focuses defense planners. So how does China compare as an adversary? Do we have the time we need to focus on capability, or should we go all-in on our currently operational forces?

Without going into direct capabilities, a fairly reasonable way to compare threats is to look at top-line military budgets. How did our spending compare to the Soviets’ and how does our spending compare to China’s? Let’s first look at the Cold War.


Data from SIPRI and CIA

From 1966 to 1989, the United States was able to muster enough defense spending to approximately match that of the Soviet Union. There were long stretches where the US lagged the Soviets, but it was always fairly close. The rest of NATO seems to have consistenly spent somewhere between 50% and 60% of the Soviet’s budget. Combined, NATO and the US spent 20-80% more than the USSR.

Data from SIPRI and CIA

Looking at these graphs, you see what looks like a close struggle, but one where the US and NATO are clearly superior. That was not at all the perception in the 60s or 70s, though. The nightly news in that era was gloomy. And the Soviet military really did pose a legitimate threat to an American-led world order. We talk today about China holding US aircraft carriers at risk. The Soviet Union held every city in America at risk. It was a global challenger as much as it sought regional hegemony. So the US strategy was to prioritize the readiness of the forces that it had. Not to prioritize the forces it wished it had.

And in the end, it is hard to argue that this was the wrong strategy. Afterall, the world is not a nuclear wasteland and America has enjoyed lone superpower status for the last 25 years. So if this is the threat picture that warrants “presence” oriented spending, what is a threat picture that warrants the opposite? This:


Data from SIPRI

It is not terribly close. During the Cold War, the US and the USSR spent similar amounts on defense. The United States outspends China three times over, today. Additionally, China’s neighbors currently spend an amount equal to China’s defense outlays, not the 60% deficit that NATO could muster on its best days.

The trajectory of China’s spending is clearly up, while the United States’ trajectory is clearly down. But America presently enjoys a vast lead. And China’s neighbors are increasing defense spending, as well (albiet at a lower rate). Taking these factors into account, it seems as though the United States has a long time before it must worry about China challenging global order. China may be building “facts on the ground” that will be beneficial once it is a mature power (by flouting international law in the South China Sea), but it is not currently a serious challenger to the United States.

While the US and NATO once spent a combined 120% of the Soviet’s budget, the US and its Asian allies currently spend 384% of China’s budget.


Data from SIPRI

If every trend stays exactly as it currently is (and that is already not realistic since China recently announced a reduction in military spending growth), it will take a decade before China poses a threat similar to that of the USSR.

China cannot currently contest our dominance in Asia in the way that the Soviets contested our dominance in Europe. During the Cold War, America waited to prioritize current-force spending until the Soviet’s military budget was about 80% of the American budget. China’s is currently at 35% of America’s.

If American strategy requires that its chief adversary be able to plausibly challenge its dominance in a region before it prioritizes current-forces over future ones, it’s clear that now is not the time for a buildup. With a minimum of 10 years before a new Cold War, and more realistically 20 or 30 years, the US military would be remiss to not fund future capabilities while it can.

The question then is relegated to one of magnitude. How much should the United States prioritize research? Let’s first look at where our current military budget is in comparison to where it’s been.


Data from SIPRI

Defense spending has averaged 6.1% of GDP since 1949. It currently rests at around 3.5% of GDP. As you can see in the above graph, defense spending was high up until the end of the Cold War, shrunk greatly in the 90s, and then rose again during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With those wars now over, our budget is in a new trough.


Data from SIPRI

Total defense spending as a percentage of GDP has only been lower for a brief time in the late 90s/early aughts. There is room to increase it if needed. And if there is to be an increase, it should go toward modernizing the force.

Research and development as a percentage of GDP lies at around .4%. The long-run average is .55%, but the R&D boom of the late 80s reached .7%.


Data from SIPRI and AAAS

The late-80s investment in R&D produced the advanced military that was able to decimate Saddam’s Soviet-style military. It was sufficient to produce a force capable of decisive victory. Similar levels of investment will be required to produce similar margins of victory. What would it take to get spending back to similar levels?

It would require 70% more research spending, but would only increase the total defense budget to 3.8% of GDP from 3.5%. Which is far below the 6.1% long-run average. By reducing our current-force size in areas unlikely to contribute in a large, conventional conflict (the least likely scenario, but easily the most damaging), we could likely keep our overall budget similar to its current levels.

China is a threat to an American-led global order in the long-run. It will eventually be able to credibly challenge our core interests in the world. It, however, does not currently warrant the same defense structure than did the USSR. We still have time to ensure our forces are capable enough to win the wars of the future. And in their current structure, they would likely prevail in any surprise conflict that comes sooner. We shouldn’t restore our military to its Cold War size. We should worry about how we can build the military of the future.

It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

Attributed to Charles Darwin.

The Rate of Change

We live in exponential times. Does anyone still own an old-fashioned, original iPhone? New products hardly hit the street before they are superseded by something newer and better. Technology seems to change daily, before our eyes. In fact, the rate of technological change is increasing, as the internet, computing power, and insatiable market demand combine to throw the research aperture wide open. In the language of the calculus, a positive second derivative means, simply, that change is accelerating. The long-term success of future defense programs will depend more than ever before on their ability to adapt continuously to this change, rather than our ability to produce exquisite point solutions.

Cutting-edge technology, once the property of governments, and especially defense departments, is now driven increasingly by market demand. Defense requirements are no longer driving the technology train. In fact, in many cases, they are not even a major passenger. A look at National Science Foundation data showing U.S. research & development (R&D) funding by source for the 45-year span between 1963 and 2008 shows that, in the 1960s, government funding dominated R&D as we developed Cold War weapons and chose to go to the moon. In such an environment, the research establishment is responsive to government needs, so integration is relatively straightforward and technology tends to flow from government development to civilian application. Radar, for example, was adapted for microwave cooking, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) changed almost everything we do. By the early 2000s, however, funding roles between industry and government had reversed. This is a good news story for a free-market economy. However, it presents a very different challenge for those who build and maintain complex defense systems, as the military is forced to become the agile adapter.

Build with Change in Mind

The Valley Forge (ex-CG-50) sinking off the coast of Hawaii after being used for target practice, 2 November 2006. U.S. Navy Photo.

The ex-Valley Forge sinking off the Hawaiian coast after being expended as a target, 2 November 2006. U.S. Navy Photo.

In a rapidly changing environment, the long-term viability of programs will depend largely on our ability to infuse evolving technologies in stride, affordably. The image at left shows the Ticonderoga-class cruiser ex-Valley Forge (CG-50) being sunk as a target after just 17½ years in service. This $1B Aegis cruiser was a technological marvel in her day, but she was not built with change in mind. Because it was too costly to backfit the open MK41 Vertical Launch System into the first five ships of her class, they were all decommissioned early—an expensive lesson in adaptability. The U.S. Navy’s Aegis cruisers and destroyers are magnificent machines, but it’s worth noting that many of the missions they perform today, including land attack and ballistic missile defense, were not on the chalkboard when they were designed in the 1970s to protect carrier battle groups from Soviet airborne saturation attacks.

We need to build systems, especially those concentrated on complex, multi-mission warships, for existing threats as well as those yet to emerge. Combat systems need to be open, modular, and flexible enough to evolve, incorporate the all-but-certain march to autonomy and machine teaming, and keep up with advances in computing and communications that are beyond military developmental control. In fact, current trends suggest the commercial-military gap will widen. Alphabet/Google, for example, consistently reinvests approximately 30% of every dollar of sales back into R&D and capital expenses (CapEX), compared with just 2% – 3.5% for top defense contractors.[1]

Affordability, Autonomy, and the Third Offset

It has been said the United States is losing its technological edge, but technology isn’t the primary obstacle. While research in many other countries certainly is improving, the pace of innovation, invention and technology development in the United States is breathtaking, and shows no signs of slowing down. The United States still produces many of the world’s most impactful and exciting technologies; however, integrating them into our defense systems and tactics is hard and getting harder.

A close look at the Navy’s and Air Force’s investment dollars (R&D plus Procurement) compared with force structure, measured in ships and aircraft, shows that in the past, as budgets inevitably cycled up and down, force structure tended to follow. When budgets declined, services financed downturns by reducing force structure and harvesting manpower dollars. When budgets increased, generally, we bought new or improved force structure. This pattern changed in 2003. For the first time, as budgets increased significantly, force structure continued to decline, even as service chiefs maintained they did not have enough assets to satisfy demand. Now, as we again face decreased defense budgets, there is no force structure to mortgage, and the implications for unit cost point to a future we can’t afford on the current trajectory. As with the first two “offset” strategies, the recently released Third Offset is driven by affordability, and an economic need to increase capability without increasing expensive capital assets.

There are only two top-level metrics in defense procurement: capability and cost. Every new program seeks to increase capability, reduce cost, or both. Yet, while capability across all services certainly has increased by many measures, so has cost, while quantities continue to shrink. New technologies like autonomy can help increase capability, but only if they can be integrated continuously, affordably, and in stride. The modular mission package approach pioneered by the Littoral Combat Ship program, with its innovative use of networked, unmanned systems, was an important step in the right direction.

With years of effort and millions of dollars invested to start each new Program of Record, it’s no wonder the services are reluctant to change programs, or take risk and add cost by infusing new technologies. Our acquisition workforce is professional and dedicated, but they are measured on their ability to deliver programs based on “cost, schedule and performance,” and programmatic rudders don’t swing easily. How then, can we expect emerging technologies, like autonomy, to develop into a potent element of our force structure, and provide the affordable leap in capability envisioned by Secretary Work’s Third Offset strategy?

Force Architecture

The Navy's unmanned X-47B receives fuel from an Omega K-707. U.S. Navy Photo.

The Navy’s unmanned X-47B receives fuel from an Omega K-707 tanker. U.S. Navy Photo.

Despite general acceptance of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) as well as airborne tanking missions, our current approach to most autonomous systems has been focused on one experiment at a time. The Navy’s X-47B demonstrated that UAVs could operate safely from an aircraft carrier, and even refuel in flight. There were valuable lessons learned but, after $2B, the program has essentially reached a dead end.

Now is the time to develop a future force architecture that will guide an orderly migration to a mix of autonomous and manned systems across all domains and, more importantly, provide the underpinnings for reprogamming funds to make it happen. The Analysis of Alternatives for the Navy’s BAMS/P8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft program informed just this kind of tradeoff, producing an optimized, combined purchase of manned and unmanned aircraft. New unmanned systems like DARPA’s autonomous “ACTUV” surface vessel, and a family of future underwater vehicles, including the Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicle, can increase fleet numbers and total capability in the same way. By increasing capacity, they can also help distribute sensors and firepower.

Consistent with the Third Offset strategy, networked, autonomous systems will perform important missions in places larger manned ships can’t, or needn’t, go. Like Garry Kasparov’s centaur chess model, they’ll fit into an overall fleet architecture in ways that optimize the whole man-machine team. As autonomous systems become increasingly capable in the future, they will share burdens and shoulder more and more of the warfighting load, while open architecture and modularity will help us pace evolving technology without the need to build new ship classes from scratch.


The “relevance horizon” for combat capabilities has always been a moving target. This is nothing new, but the pace of technology change is increasing, and is driven by forces that are beyond government control. Future Defense programs must be built with change in mind, to adapt to emerging technologies that evolve faster than today’s acquisition cycle.

As long as we continue to approach autonomous systems in isolation, they will be slow to realize their full potential. Now is the time, within the new Force Structure Assessment, to look 10 to 25 years into the future and devise a comprehensive fleet architecture, based on rigorous analysis and modeling, that optimizes the mix between manned and unmanned programs envisioned in the Third Offset strategy, and helps compensate for declining force structure numbers. Like the first two offset strategies, the Third Offset is driven by economic necessity.

Finally, many of the world’s brightest minds are still right here in the United States, producing the world’s best technologies. Our challenge is to keep those technologies flowing into the hands of our warfighters.

[1] Personal communication, James McAleese, McAleese & Associates, 29 January 2016.

Please join us at 5pm (EDT) on 3 April 2016 for Midrats Episode 326: Undersea Lawfare with RADM Johnson, USN (Ret) and CAPT Palmer, USN

DARPA image

Since its ascendency to the premier maritime power, the US Navy – especially in the area of undersea warfare – has been at the leading edge of using technology to get a military edge.

During the Cold War, significant and steady progress in the first two steps of the kill chain against submarines, location and tracking, made the prospect of engaging superior numbers of Soviet submarine forces manageable.

We continue that tradition today, but to keep ahead of growing challenges, we have test. Build a little, test a little, learn a lot will stop dead in its tracks without testing in the real world. Computer simulation is only so good.

When it comes to submarines especially, you have to get in the water with them.

Knowing our technological track record an operating a generation or two ahead of some potential adversaries – are there ways they can negate our edge – or at least buy time while they catch up?

Are we vulnerable to potential challengers using national and international law against us? Undersea Lawfare?

Our guests for the full hour to discuss will be Rear Admiral J. Michael “Carlos” Johnson, USN (Ret.) and Captain Michael T. Palmer, USN.

As a stepping off point, we will be using their article in the latest Naval War College Review: UNDERSEA LAWFARE – Can the US Navy Fall Victim to This Asymmetrical Warfare Threat?

RADM Johnson retired after 33 years of service as a naval aviator that included combat in Vietnam, Libya, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf. He commanded the John F. Kennedy Battle Group, CVW-8, and VFA-86. Ashore he served on the staffs of the CNO as Director of Aviation Plans and Requirements) and the J3 of EUCOM.

Captain Palmer is an active-duty JAG and an adjunct assistant professor at ODU. Her has served as environmental counsel to the CNO; U.S. Fleet Forces Command; and Commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic.

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IMG_0114Everyone has their own name for the series of conflicts spinning off from the waxing of the most radical interpretation of Sunni Islamic Extremism, but with each passing incident, I become more and more comfortable with “The Long War.”

At its core, this is a religious war, and those wars last the longest time as you are not fighting primarily for land, resources, power, or ego – but for ideas and the pursuit of a home for your immortal soul. Many are not comfortable with that concept, but they need to get over it. Regardless of what your motivations are, if any; if you are being attacked by someone motivated by a religion, then you are part of a religious war.

The latest attack on Brussels is just that, a tactical action in this phase of a war that pre-dates 11 September 2001. Others can argue the start date, but it is older than those fresh faces showing up at boot camp this summer.

Why Brussels this time? Simple, Brussels isn’t just the capital of the small nation of 10-million souls, Belgium – it is the capital of Europe. In the mind of the Islamic State, Europe is the heart of the West. The West is the home of secularism, Christianity, and tolerance of Jews. It also happens to be a place where there are sanctuaries near targets where, relatively unmolested by authorities and under the protection of cowed co-religionists, they can plan, support, and if needed, hide after their operations.

There is ease of mobility and an ability to blend in that makes the most difficult part of any operation is gathering the weapons and explosives to do the killing. Basic OPSEC is all that is needed. Money is of little issue, nor is finding willing fighters.

After a half-century of an uninterrupted and failed experiment in multi-culturalism, Belgium and other Western nations now have a critical mass of unassimilated native born radicals. Even better, they have been recently reinforced by well over a million unaccompanied military aged males born and raised in even more radicalized cultures. The direction unaccompanied, unemployable, and alienated young men usually head points to one thing – there will be more and more attacks like we saw in Brussels. An attack, by the way, that is just another iteration of what has been seen in the USA, UK, France, Spain, Russia and other nations over the course of the last few decades. There is nothing new here, except that a few more people are noticing.

Besides the self-inflicted demographic foolishness Western Europe beclowned itself with over the last half-century, in Europe’s near abroad forces are continuing that will drive more and more radicals their way to join the cells that are planning additional attacks.

From sectarian Iraq to the Madmaxistan that followed the Arab Spring from Libya to Syria, reality has hopefully put to bed any fevered dreams of democracy in North Africa through to the Middle East’s Arab states. The least radical nations, and our best allies, are those who have a strong monarchy like Jordan, or that have a military strong man keeping a lid on the bubbling Islamists that are woven through their society, like Egypt. The best we can hope for is something like Tunisia where the political elite are doing their best, but as the graphic shows, they do not have a benign populous that can be relied on to create a civil society in mass for at least a generation – if then.

Even inside the Western umbrella, there are huge problems. Turkey continues to drift out of the Western orbit, by design. Their leadership’s increasingly authoritarianism, handmaiden to the refugee crisis, and open flirtations with Islamism sends another clear signal that the once sick man of Europe is drifting to something not seen in the modern period. It isn’t pleasant, but the facts are right there for all to see. The modern, secular West has lost the war of ideas in Turkey. That leaves them one way to go – and they are half-way there already.

The Gulf States are small, but important and fickle allies. Their security is balanced on their benefactor against Shia and Persian ascendency in the East – Saudi Arabia.

Lower oil prices has emphasized that the House of Saud’s nation is held together with bailing wire and duct tape. They are rightfully focused on the problem in Yemen – a challenge that is beyond the scope of this post, but is more important than the press it gets.

OK. That is a lot of “what” and “so what;” what about “what’s next?”

Two things. First, we need to look very seriously about which nations we allow visa free travel from. The UK, Belgium, Sweden, and Germany among others already have a significant critical mass of native born radical Islamists – and their numbers are about to increase dramatically.

Second; the Islamic State must be destroyed. If not, well … let’s use as a planning assumption that it will be. Syria and her allies will push from the west. The Kurds will clean up their lines and serve as an anvil in the north. The Shia-led Iraqi forces with American help will squeeze the Islamic Forces out of Sunni Iraq. As that happens leading up to the inevitable fall of Raqqa, many of the thousands of Western passport holding Islamic State militants will return home. Some will try to just get back to a normal life, but many will not. They will be tasked to either move to other ungoverned areas of the world to continue the work of the Caliphate there, or will return home to attack from within with their fellow radicals who stayed home to build the logistics, intelligence and HUMINT needed to get the best effect from attacks inside the belly of the Western beast.

What about the USA and her navy? Regardless of the results of this year’s election, this war will continue to come to us. As we have back away, it has followed us – and will continue to. As we saw in Brussels where Mormon missionaries and a USAF officer’s family were wounded – they can kill American anywhere. Also know this; we will be attacked again here just like we were in Boston, San Bernardino, Ft. Hood, and Chattanooga. As you read this, there are multiple cells working on the next mass casualty attack in the USA.

There will be ungoverned areas in the world, or poorly governed areas, that will be sanctuaries and areas of expansion for radical Islamists. We will have to work with local forces where we can, and take independent action where we must. Though many want to re-focus on some imaginary possible future great power conflict on the high seas – and we must – or want to keep rejustifying the results of the CONOPS playsets of the 1990s with LCS/FF, but we must also man, train, and equip for what we have now and will have as an ongoing engagement – The Long War.

From high-volume, high-accuracy naval gunfire, to special operations, to land attack cruise missiles, to TACAIR, we will need to be able to project national will ashore from waters, airspace, and property that we alone control. We must be able to do it with no notice, or with great fanfare. A light footprint with as little risk to casualties as possible, or lighting punitive expeditions ashore that accepts losses.

That is the reminder from Brussels. This enemy gets a vote, and it is voting for war. To paraphrase Trotsky; we may not be interested in a religious war, but a religious war is interested in us.

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