Small Wars Journal

Hardware, Not Humans: The U.S. Navy's History of Technology and Micro-Management

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 5:52am

Hardware, Not Humans: The U.S. Navy's History of Technology and Micro-Management

Tom Clarity

In a White Paper published in 2012, General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, established Mission Command as a central tenet of future military operations in an uncertain environment.[1]  With an emphasis on decentralized execution, disciplined initiative, and independent and aggressive actions from subordinate commanders, General Dempsey believes that Mission Command will best position the U.S. military to conduct operations in a chaotic and rapidly changing operating environment.[2]  Much of the Joint Force 2020 charged with adopting Mission Command is accurately characterized as having been “shaped by a decade of lessons learned in war.”[3]        

Yet neither Operations Iraqi Freedom nor Enduring Freedom presented the U.S. Navy with major opposition at sea.  Furthermore, communications and data networks that facilitate centralized control have proliferated throughout the fleet.  Historical analysis of the Command and Control (C2) organizations of western navies suggests a link between advances in communication technologies and an initial tendency to centralize C2, resulting in a loss of initiative and combat effectiveness.  Some may argue that the technological advancements of the Information Age have made centralized C2 an appropriate and effective framework for naval operations.  However, the U.S. Navy’s success in future major combat operations may well be determined by its ability to reject centralized C2, establish tenets of Mission Command as official doctrine, and train toward its employment.     

Better C2 Through Technology?  British Centralization and Nelson’s Rebuttal

Early communications technologies, such as the British Navy’s development of codified visual signals that conveyed specific tactical orders, indicate that communications advancements have often had a shaping effect on naval C2 organization vice an adaptive one.  Rather than determining how these advancements could facilitate existing tactics, enhanced communications changed the British Navy’s C2 organization.  Following the Seven Year’s War, the British admiralty adopted the signals books of their hated (and recently defeated) French enemy and developed a “state of the art signaling system [that] offered the comfortable prospect of centralized control from the quarter-deck of the flagship.”[4]  Centralized control became widely adapted and remained the hallmark of British and French naval actions throughout the late 1700s, in fleet actions near the American colonies, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean.[5]

Yet even while centralized C2 possessed numerous proponents throughout the British fleets, one of its principal dissenters led the British to the most lopsided and decisive victories in the age of sail.  Lord Admiral Nelson’s embrace of decentralized C2 was likely borne of a naval engagement off the coast of Cape St. Vincent, Portugal.[6]  Throughout the course of the battle, Nelson repeatedly ignored the signal orders of his commander in light of his interpretation of the best course of action to defeat the Spanish fleet.[7]  Nelson would later put his telescope to his blind eye in action against the Dutch after receiving an order to leave off action, saying, “Damn the signal.  Keep mine for close battle flying.  That’s the way I answer such signals!  Nail mine to the mast!”[8] During both engagements, his refusal to follow orders that did not accurately reflect the tactical situation proved critical to British victory.[9]

Like the Prussian fathers of Auftragstaktik, Nelson adopted decentralized C2 at the Nile and Trafalgar after experiencing the failures of the alternative.  At both Cape St. Vincent and off of Copenhagen, British commanders issued orders that did not accurately reflect the tactical situations of their subordinates.  If Nelson attributed the fleet’s failure to achieve decisive victory in either engagement to the individual senior commanders, he would have likely pursued the same model of centralized C2 once in operational command.  Rather, he faulted the model itself, and developed trusted subordinates capable of understanding and executing his intentions in battle.[10]  At Trafalgar, he would transmit a solitary maneuvering command via signal, his transmission to “engage the enemy more closely,” more flourish than actual command.[11]  The “Nelson Touch” was a product of his acceptance of chaos as a wartime constant that could not be mitigated by technology, but could be exploited by a decentralized C2 organization.[12]      

“…going to sea used to be fun, and then they gaves us radios.” (Admiral Arleigh Burke)

Unfortunately, the “Nelson Touch” did not endure in practice for either the British or American fleets in the face of communications advancement.  By the early 1900s, the effectiveness of the wireless telegraph in the maritime domain was validated by its contributions to the Japanese victory over the ill-trained Russian fleet at Tsushima Straits, where it was used to pass tactical directions and relay the Russian fleet’s position.[13]  Yet its ability to also function as a paralytic to individual initiative was evident during the British fleet’s actions at Jutland during the First World War.  With over 100 surface vessels to command, the wireless telegraph provided Admiral Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the British Grand Fleet, with a mechanism to centralize control to a degree that would have been impossible prior to its incorporation.[14]   Accordingly, individual initiative and aggressiveness from subordinate commanders declined, “for fears their superiors knew something they did not (or had intentions for which they were unaware).”[15]   The Grand Fleet failed to achieve victory against the German Navy in large part because the British admiralty allowed emergent communications technology to determine their C2 organization and operational philosophy, rather than treating the wireless telegraph as an additive technology toward Mission Command.

The role of communications advances towards centralizing C2 in the British fleet continued into the Second World War.  In one particularly egregious example of technology facilitating centralized C2, the British Admiralty ordered a convoy to scatter due to intelligence indications that the German battleship Tirpitz would sail against the convoy.[16]   The escort commander possessed the on scene situational awareness and argued that clear skies in the local area would prevent the German’s from exposing the Tirpitz to aerial attack.[17]  The Admiralty, however, possessed the decision making authority in a centralized C2 organization.  The convoy was scattered and subsequently slaughtered by submarines.  The Tirpitz did not sail.[18]

The U.S. Navy’s experiences in the early stages of the Second World War demonstrated similar problems with centralized control.  An After Action Report (AAR) of the Battle of Guadalcanal performed by the President of the Naval War College detailed the attempts by the Officer in Tactical Command (OTC) of Task Group (TG) 67.4 to maintain control of the assembled TG through a flurry of radio commands during a fleet on fleet action.[19]  The OTC’s issuance of multiple maneuvering and firing commands in quick succession effectively splintered his fleet, reduced their striking power, and contributed to incidents of fratricide.[20]

The Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester Nimitz, would commit the same sins of micro-management on a grander scale during Admiral Halsey’s raid on the Marshall Islands.[21]  Without any direct knowledge of the course of the engagement, Nimitz directed Halsey to “exploit the situation,” and “expand his operations.”[22]  While Halsey chose to ignore those orders, it is likely that other subordinate commanders would have followed them and exposed the depleted U.S. carrier fleet to unacceptable risk for a limited gain.

Nimitz’ actions and the C2 failures of TG 67.4 were neither an aberration nor unpredictable.  Instead, they were the inevitable by-product of the U.S. Navy’s cultural failures preceding the Second World War.  The tendency to micro-manage subordinate commanders, facilitated by over the horizon communications technology, had come to dominate the service.  In an admonishing message sent on January 21st, 1941, Admiral Ernest King, Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, addressed the over centralization of C2 throughout the Navy, stating:

I have been concerned for many years over the increasing tendency - now grown almost to ‘standard practice’ – of flag officers and other group commanders to issue orders and instructions in which their subordinates are told ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ to do to such an extent and on such detail that the ‘Custom’ of the service’ has virtually become the antithesis of that essential element of command – ‘initiative of the subordinate’…We are preparing for...those active operations (commonly called war) which require the exercise and utilization of the full powers and the capabilities of every officer in command status.  There will be neither time nor opportunity to do more than prescribe the several tasks of the several subordinates…expecting and requiring of them – the capacity to perform the assigned tasks.[23]

King, who would serve as the Chief of Naval Operations during the Second World War, understood that Mission Command was an essential cultural philosophy and doctrine for successful combat operations.  Additionally, creating a force capable of executing Mission Command in combat required a significant investment in training and the willingness to accept additional risk at the tactical level of war to achieve operational ends. 

Had U.S. Navy forces at Leyte Gulf failed to embrace Mission Command, it is unlikely that it would have achieved victory in the last major surface engagement of the war.  Success during the Battle of Surigao Strait depended on the ability of subordinate commanders to aggregate their tactical decisions towards an operational end.  Admiral Jesse Oldendorf, left to cover the Japanese fleet’s approach to Leyte, possessed a make-shift Allied fleet comprised of over 40 major surface combatants, 39 torpedo boats, and 2 scout submarines.[24]  The submarines, USS Darter and USS Dace, independently made the decision to delay their attacks against the Japanese to report the position and composition of the enemy fleet.[25] Furthermore, the commander of Destroyer Squadron 54, Captain J.G. Coward, coordinated his plan of attack with Oldendorf, despite not being under his command: 

At 1950 October 24 he sent ‘Oley’ this message: ‘In case of surface contact to the southward I plan to make an immediate torpedo attack and then retire to clear you.  With your approval I will submit plan shortly.’  Fifteen minutes later, Oldendorf radioed his approval.  At 2008, Captain Coward sent the Admiral his basic plan, details to follow shortly.  Coward did not merely volunteer; he announced that he was going in.[26]

Coward’s actions are only one example of the displayed initiative and decentralized decision making and execution that was the hallmark of the U.S. Navy’s fleet employment at Surigao Strait.  Senior commanders used communications technologies to establish their intentions, and subordinate commanders understood their operational objective and coordinated their tactical actions towards that end. 

The decentralized C2 organization used by the U.S. Navy in its victory at Surigao Strait resulted from its informal adoption throughout the fleet throughout the war.  The “intelligent initiative displayed” by subordinates characterized the U.S. Navy’s operations in the Gilbert Islands, and was noted as a redeeming feature of the long naval campaign of Guadalcanal.[27]  However, by November 1944, the U.S. Navy’s tacit adoption of Mission Command was formalized in the War Instructions provided to the fleet.[28] Specific provisions emphasized the senior commander’s responsibility to ensure subordinate commanders understood his intent, a subordinate commander’s responsibility to deviate from orders to better meet the senior commander’s intent, and the value of initiative.[29] The U.S. Navy’s communications capabilities had not changed significantly throughout the war; its understanding of centralized C2’s inherent limitations in a dynamic battle-space had.         

Kill TV, Satellites, and Tactical Admirals

Although modern technology provides commanders with a means for centralizing C2, the decision to centralize or decentralize C2 and to what degree to do so is ultimately the commander’s.  Accordingly, that decision should be shaped from a thorough understanding of both the operating environment and the strategic, operational, and tactical objectives.  Additionally, commanders need to understand the limitations and vulnerabilities of the technologies that enable centralized control.   Finally, commanders must understand the long range implications of centralized C2 on the development of future operational commanders.

The networks and space-based technologies that provide U.S. Navy commanders with the ability to centralize C2 are vulnerable to attack and will likely be high priority targets for China in potential future combat operations.[30]  Accordingly, the fleet’s ability to network data for force disposition, detection, and targeting is both a critical strength and a critical vulnerability.  If centralized control is rigidly enforced throughout the fleet, the successful disruption or destruction of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites and computer networks by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may severely limit the U.S. fleet’s combat effectiveness.[31]

Yet even if the U.S. Navy constructed a network architecture that was impervious to attack, the second and third-order effects of rigid centralization should be considered.  Technological innovations coupled with a lack of trust in the judgment of subordinates can invert the commander’s role in war, leading to what Peter W. Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, has coined as the rise of “the tactical general”:

The four-star general proudly recounts how he spent ‘two hours watching footage’ beamed to his headquarters.  Sitting behind a live video feed from a Predator unmanned aircraft system (UAS), he saw two insurgent leaders sneak into a compound, openly carrying weapons…Having personally checked the situation, he gave the order to strike.  But his role didn’t end there; the general proudly tells how he even decided what size bomb his pilots should drop on the compound.[32]

In the two hours that the general spent at the tactical level of war, what analysis and consideration did he pay to the operational and strategic levels of war?[33]  The U.S. Navy faces the same danger of a loss of focus at the higher levels of war if commanders spend time and energy on tactical events.

Furthermore, rigid centralization destroys the subordinate’s ability to develop their decision making at the tactical level.  Without the experience of decision making at the tactical level of war, what lessons will they draw on to make decisions at the operational or strategic level?[34]  In “Role Making and the Assumption of Leadership”, Bruce T. Caine, a former U.S. Army officer and current professor of organizational psychology, states that there is an explicit linkage between autonomy and leadership development.[35]  The progression of a subordinate to a leadership position relies upon the continuous assessment of their ability to perform tasks, with the successful completion of those tasks resulting in a decrease of supervision.[36]  Implicit in this model of command organization is a concept for leadership renewal. Subordinates are provided with the opportunity to build the experience that they will need to move into a leadership role at a higher level.

The unintended consequence of a strategic or operational commander making decisions at a tactical level is the inhibition of the development of future strategic or operational leaders.  Using Caine’s framework for assessment with the example of the four star general and the pilot, to what degree did that pilot learn from the execution of his or her bombing mission?  Inhibited from making even the most basic decisions about the weaponeering of his or her attack, to what degree will they be able to make more difficult decisions at the higher levels of war?  Furthermore, divorced from the responsibility inherent to autonomous decision making at the tactical level, how can their commander even determine their suitability to serve as a decision maker at the operational or strategic levels of war?   

Net-working is a Capability, C2 Organization is a Choice

The U.S. Navy’s surface fleet may find itself engaged in major naval combat in the near future.  While the modern fleet possesses highly advanced communications and data-networking technology, centuries of written history suggest that no advance in technology has successfully eliminated the fog of war.  In contrast, victory is often gained by the force best able to exploit it.  By training and educating its personnel on the tenets of Mission Command and embracing it as a critical component of its service culture, the U.S. Navy can create a human network of initiative, ingenuity, and lethality.   

End Notes

[1] General Martin Dempsey, Mission Command: White Paper, p. 3, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, April 3rd, 2012.

[2] Ibid, p. 2.

[3] Ibid, p. 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 135, 145, 158.

[6] Ibid, p. 170, 175-177.

[7] Ibid, p. 175-176.

[8] Ibid, p. 191.

[9] Ibid, p. 176, 191.

[10] Ibid, p. 207.

[11] Ibid, p. 206.

[12] Ibid, p. 13.

[13] Timothy Scott Wolters, “Managing a Sea of Information: Shipboard Command and Control in the United States Navy, 1899-1945, p. 59, Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technologies, September 2003

[14] Ibid, p. 94-95.

[15] Ibid, p. 95

[16] Norman Friedman, Network-Centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter Through Three World Wars, p. 30-31, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2009

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] W.S. Pye, President of the Naval War College, Comments on the BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Nov, 11-15, 1942, Serial 2238, p. 4, June 5th, 1943

[20] Ibid.

[21] Michael A. Palmer, Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control Since the Sixteenth Century, Harvard University Press, p. 260, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2005

[22] Ibid.

[23] Admiral Ernest King, CINCLANT Serial 053 of January 21, 1941

[24] Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte: June 1944 – January 1945, p. 199, 203-210, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1958

[25] Admiral Frederick C. Sherman, Combat Command: The American Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific War, E.P. Dutton and Company, Inc., New York, 1950

[26] Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte: June 1944 – January 1945, p. 203, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1958

[27] Admiral Raymond Spruance, “Galvanic Operations – Report On”, Serial 06156, p. 4, December 10th, 1943 and Vice Admiral William Pye, President of the Naval War College, Comments on the BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Nov, 11-15, 1942, Serial 2238, p. 8, June 5th, 1943

[28] “War Instructions United States Navy 1944”, Section II. Command, 207, Section III. Inititiative, 214, 215, The Navy Department Library

[29] Ibid.

[30] Jan Van Tol, “Air Sea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept”, p. 20-21, 27-28, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010

[31] Ibid.

[32] Peter W. Singer, “Tactical Generals: Leaders, Technology, and the Perils of Battlefield Management” Air and Space Power Journal, Brookings Institute, Summer 2009,

[33] Ibid.

[34] Author’s personal experience.

[35] Office of Military Leadership, United States Military Academy, A Study of Organizational Leadership, p. 367, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1976

[36] Ibid.


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Commander Tom Clarity was commissioned through the NROTC program at Villanova University and is a graduate of the Naval War College.  An EA-18G Electronic Warfare Officer, he has participated in Operations SOUTHERN WATCH, IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, and NEW DAWN.  He recently screened for command of an operational EA-18G squadron and is currently assigned to VAQ-129 for refresher training in the "Growler".


Tom C.

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 4:22pm

In reply to by Move Forward

I am actually a huge fan of communications advances and the ability to communicate across services. My concern is that we have allowed advances in communications to shape our approach to C2, rather than adapt them to a service culture that relies upon initiative for success. My ability to communicate with other assets and agencies increases the likelihood of effectively accomplishing a SEAD mission. The immediacy of my experience of that mission, the fact that I am airborne and in the battlespace, also provides me with several other inputs that impact my decision making that cannot be replicated in a more sterile environment.

Move Forward

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 12:24pm

To add to CBCalif’s comments about “hardware,” I recalled reading about problems in communication between F-22s and F-35s, so brief online research confirmed the issue. Apparently the F-22 uses the older Intra Flight Data Link (IFDL) and the F-35 uses the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) and the two are incompatible. They originally talked about retrofitting MADL on the F-22 but it was too costly. In addition, the F-22 can receive non-secure Link 16 data links from other aircraft but cannot transmit it. So F-22s can communicate with F-15s equipped with pods for IFDL, but you don’t want a pod on the F-35 that will disrupt its low radar signature.

This situation fires a shot across the bow of the author’s historical comparisons, because today’s F-22s and F-35s must communicate with each other and 4th gen USAF aircraft as a high-low mix as well as with the author’s EA-18G and Navy F/A-18 E/F. In addition, AWACS aircraft must communicate with stealth and other aircraft as well. Apparently, the USAF has installed the Battlefield Airborne Communication Node on its Global Hawk UAS that can translate/convert and retransmit data links to users not equipped with the right comms. Presumably the combination of BACN on Global Hawk and IFDL pods on other aircraft is how the F-22 communicates with other aircraft over Syria.

So the author’s use of historical analogies is apropos in some cases but ironic in others since he soon will command some of the most advanced new air and EW “hardware” in the world. In addition, systems like that are some most easily converted to unmanned missions as indicated by the Miniature Air-Launched Decoy-Jammer and potential EW applications for UCLASS and the LRS-B. The “kill TV” reference is also completely new relative to any historical reference to yesteryear. Few would disagree that 4-stars should not fixate on full motion video, although we recall a room full of high-ranking folks watching Osama bin Laden’s demise. An Army UAS operator also told an interesting story about a Navy SEAL O-6 commander getting upset that nobody told him about all the heat sources he was newly witnessing when in fact they were sheep. It also appears that the F-35s EO/IR system won’t immediately be compatible with other data links that feed Joint Terminal Attack Controller ROVER or others OSRVT video receivers. Not good.

The author therefore makes good points about micromanagement vs. allowing disciplined initiative and independent decision-making in the absence of orders for the new situation. However he does so without acknowledging the necessity for comms interoperability not only between services but also other coalition partners for air targeting. Synchronization of maneuver is difficult without communications. Enablers present other challenges, particularly for indirect fires and air attacks. For instance, an F-35 dropping a small diameter bomb II from up to 40nm away needs some means of communicating with the JTAC near ground troops, particularly if someone forward is laser-designating. Add risks of fratricide, collateral damage (which may explain the 4-stars choosing a munition), air-ground operations miscues, airspace conflicts, inadequate intelligence-sharing, and non-integrated missile defense challenges, and it seems clear that completely independent leader action on today’s battlefield is no substitute for effective air, land, and sea communications.


Sun, 05/31/2015 - 7:39pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

A former Navy (Surface Warfare) Officer (using today’s nomenclature), one of the problems that I observed over the years is that elements within a branch of the service often attempt to enlarge the scope of their branch’s overriding or intended mission. The primary strategic mission of the Navy is to insure control of those sea lanes or (Ocean) areas as desired by our political executive and, if ordered, to deny the same to an opponent; thus to enable the movement of commercial goods or military supplies across those bodies of water. There are a number of add on missions that have arisen over the centuries / decades, but these are temporary (short term) or adjunct in nature.

For instance, the Navy provides submarine based platforms for Trident Missiles as part of the nation’s (MAD) strategic response capability, which in reality is an extension of an Air Force mission due to the platform on which the missiles are carried. Also, the Aegis anti-Missile is repeatedly tested and improved, is highly effective, and thy have on occasion ordered Aegis ships to patrol along the coast of Korea. However, that capability can be provided to South Korea simply by selling them those systems and stationing them ashore or on Korean and (I believe) now on Japanese Navy Ships patrolling in the region.

I simply cannot envision major nuclear armed powers proceeding into a conventional war with one another for all the obvious reasons. But presuming the highly unlikely, at least for war gamming scenario purposes, it would be strategically absurd to use aircraft from Carriers to attack the Chinese mainland. There would be no need for such a costly effort. It would as strategically foolish as the trench warfare assaults of World War I, incur the costs, and provide minimal gain given the limited number of aircraft carried on a Carrier. The number of escort ships accompanying said Carriers would be enormous – probably beyond our capability given the ever reduced number of needed ship types in today’s Navy, and there in all likelihood are too many Chinese aircraft available to defend that Nation.

We should never plan to fight a conventional war such as the above on an enemy’s terms, such as by attacking the coast of China from Carriers. Instead we should / would (?) attack their weak points and attempt to isolate / contain their forces to their land.

China’s Industrial base’s vulnerabilities are substantial and open to interdiction. Their industrial output / economy relies on commodities and oil from distant locations transported either by ship or pipelines going to their vulnerable ports and refineries. So, why assault that Nation’s heavily defended coast, when (in this day and age, with today’s weapons and weapons systems properly employed) we could destroy or severely limit their industrial output using distant interdiction by subs or ships, or using missiles from subs and surface ships located far out to Sea? Shipping in and out of that country could be interdicted and turned around (or sunk) generally hundreds of miles from their shores, mines could block their ports, cruise type missile could reduce their port facilities to rubble, pipelines are fixed targets as are oil refineries and fine targets for Cruise type missiles, etc. We could destroy them faster than they could rebuild them in this day and age.

I fail to see why anyone in the right strategic mind would consider it advisable to attack the coast of China with planes from Carriers. The mission of extending sea power ashore, as many term it, is at best a secondary mission for the Navy, and it is intended to be one of a temporary and limited presence – perhaps much to the chagrin of the Marine Corps forever looking to expand their role. Carriers and Amphibious forces are simply not sufficiently sized for extended missions of that type – and it is the strategic domain of the Army and Air Force. Since my time as a Navy Officer, the number of Carriers has dropped significantly. CVA’s have dropped from 16 to 10 and CVS’s from 8 to 0 as have the number of Air Groups. Major Commands and the CNO’s are generally no longer Aviation types, which in itself is a message as to how the Navy views its mission.

Anything is possible, but I know of no Admiral who believes that Carrier Groups will ever be used to attack the mainland of a large country such as china. At the most, Aircraft from Carriers will be used in support roles such as that being conducted in Iraq. What the optimum number is for their designated role, I don't know.


Sun, 05/31/2015 - 1:57pm

In reply to by Bill M.

I previously read the referenced article in War is Boring (WiB) which can best be described as a collection of historical inaccuracies with a writing style reflecting the arrogance of an inexperienced college know-it-all-sophomore, and someone who believes that a collection of quoted one or two liners provide substantive factual assertions rather than mere (and often unfounded) opinion. When papers are written to prove a predetermined point, as with the noted WiB paper, substantive research and analysis is the first casualty.

Had the WiB writer conducted even a modicum of research, they would of discovered that the U.S. Navy had six Aircraft Carriers and Air Groups by November 1941, with a 7th under construction. They would have discovered that by the 1930’s Fleet Operations were Carrier (not Battleship) centric. Given any degree of intellectual thought or curiosity, they could have inquired of themselves -- given the rather limited military budgets of the Depression Era, why had the Navy had elected to build Carriers rather than other ships.

The writer’s theory that the Navy is operationally traditional bound and fails to keep up with the times is pure B.S. Factual history proves otherwise, presuming one is familiar with that history and understands the reasoning for and the value of the technical advances having been made and under development. However, outside the Navy itself and / or among the Engineering types of the Aerospace / Defense Industry there are few others that are familiar with the changes and advances, or even understand their purpose. Are there disagreements over courses of action -- of course, but that is the nature of the game.

The Sea and the land are totally different operating environments having almost nothing (or nothing) in common. For instance, There is a world of difference between firing a cruise missile at and hitting a fixed building, firing a rifle shot at a seen target, placing Naval Gunfire or Artillery shells on a set of coordinates – versus the successful firing of a long range missile at a far distant and moving target. Anyone asserting that a Chinese shore based missile (or any missile) can target and track a ship far distant over the horizon, then lock on to it and hit it – should describe in technical detail (in Electrical Engineering speak) “specifically” how that target acquisition will be made – using what form of electronic transmission on which frequencies, from which physical source, describe in technical detail how data will be transmitted to the fired missile and how often; then technically specify how that missile itself may search electronically or otherwise, along which frequencies, how often, how electronically and when it could acquire lock on, etc. That will require actual technical knowledge / an actual understanding about the so-called electromagnetic spectrum (or EW if one likes). Until they can do that, they are out of their element.

I did, however, enjoy the WiB writer citing as supporting evidence of his case the advice given the U.S. Navy by Soviet Admiral Gorshkov -- who organized the Soviet Navy around nuclear powered submarines. The same Soviet Admiral whose subs those of us in ASW had little difficulty tracking – unbeknownst to Gorshkov and the Russians, until the Walker Bothers sold U.S. Navy secrets to the Soviets.

So far the U.S. Navy has not been (meaningfully) challenged on the sea post WWII, because prospective challengers knew they would fail. That may change soon, not for strategic reasons, but due simply to the reduced size of the U.S. Navy-- which is going the way of the Royal Navy. Contrary to the WiB article contents, it is the presence of large numbers of U.S. Navy (Surface) Ships with their technical capabilities -- which our opponents comprehend, that have prevented them from meaningfully challenging us on the Sea. Recent Administrations have been willing to forgo that numerical advantage, and we will eventually pay the price.

Today, America’s foreign policy is being conducted without clear, coherent (or any) long term political / strategic goals in mind, or so it seems, continuing a trend from past decades. Given that lack of guidance, our military’s force structure, size and capabilities are similarly being put together and maintained without the needed coherence. The DoD previously compensated for that lack of coherence and a lack of a goal based strategy by fielding a large multi-capable Army, Navy, and Air Force in the past. The declining budgets have (perhaps temporarily) brought that approach to a halt, thereby, endangering our nation having a capable military.

The nations National Security team and political bodies also function with the ridiculous view that incurring losses is fatal to securing one's objectives. That is absurd -- and simply means we should close the books on our word presence and come home.

The current President is absurdly talking tough while shrinking the military. Thus, we are merely treading water (or running in place if you wish) while we await the future and a new President. President Obama has, however, cleverly created one struggle -- he has the military brass fighting with each other over declining budget funds, with many claiming to have the required solution to which the others should conform their views? It is a fascinating time, we will se what the future brings for this country and its ever shrinking military.

Bill M.

Sat, 05/30/2015 - 9:07am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

His hubris is not surprising, as an Italian philosopher once said, "there are none so blind, than those who will not see." Unlike other professions the military is at a disadvantage in that it doesn't get to practice its trade and evolve it on a regular basis. To illustrate the issue with an example, a neurosurgeon or orthopedic surgeon practices their trade persistently and advances their science based on real world feedback. The military tends to rely on history to garner its principles, while guessing about future scenarios it should prepare for. In the mean while their are significant changes in technology, economics, politics, international relations, and socially that are never fully accounted for in our assumptions about the future that generally invalidate our doctrines and tactics. As Liddell Hart wrote (paraphrasing), our opponents are not patients tied to a bed, but our generals tend to view them that way. One of the characteristics of war is that it is interactive, or in simple term the adversary gets a vote. Seems we tend to recognize, yet ignore this truth.

I'm sure the Germans thought the Bismark was indestructible. The U.S. Army persisted in their belief longer than they should have that horse cavalry could defeat armor, SF thought they could defeat Saddam with UW alone, and the U.S. and UK Air Force during WWII continued to believe in the myth of strategic bombing as a war winner, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary regarding all of these perceptions. Paradigm shifts take time in traditional organizations like the military.

I have little doubt that the aircraft carrier will be a principle target in the near future, and there is no guarantee that we will even be able to determine who conducted the attack when it happens. Furthermore, what if the attacker isn't a state actor, what will our so called major response be? We need a new naval strategist or strategists that look beyond the concepts of Mahan and Corbett, perhaps develop a maritime version of a Fuller or Hart to at least get the conservation started on alternative futures regarding naval power.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 05/29/2015 - 12:48pm

In reply to by Bill M.

This mirrors a conversation I had recently with a Navy Captain (PhD, strategist, and Carrier pilot).

My position is that carriers may well be as obsolete as Battleships were in 1940, and that we should not be investing in ever bigger and more expensive carriers and aircraft, but to begin focusing on more asymmetric approaches that create less strategic vulnerability to the nation. I conceded there would long be a role for carriers in support of minor operations and projecting power, but that in major warfare, or even a minor dust up, with China off their coast we would undoubtedly lose 1 or two.

He was outraged at the thought. That no one would dare sink one for fear of the massive retaliation that would follow ( ala, remember Pearl Harbor, the Maine, etc). Also that we did not lose one in the war with Vietnam.

He was deadly serious. Comparing the impunity of US carriers off the coast of Vietnam with the vulnerability they would have today against China in shallow coastal waters off their coast is crazy to me. Also, to assume no one would dare attack one is comparable to big nation hubris throughout history that precedes a mighty fall.

The entire joint force needs to re-think how we out-asymmetric the asymmetry of our opponents and competitors. We need to get outside our respective boxes, and that includes SOF. "new" thinking on UW is not much evolved from how we approached France in WWII or Afghanistan post 9/11. We all have to do better.

Bill M.

Fri, 05/29/2015 - 6:16am

In reply to by CBCalif

CB, thanks for the detailed answer. It does appear to this non-Navy guy that the Navy, perhaps more than any other service, is trapped by tradition and won't face reality until it smacks them in the face. Unlike the other services/domains, the Navy hasn't had to face the reality of combat to gain control of the maritime domain (in a specified area) for decades. The article at the link below is eye opening.…

"The hubris of the “battleship Navy” was such that just nine days before Pearl Harbor, the official program for the 1941 Army-Navy game displayed a full page photograph of the battleship USS Arizona with language virtually extolling its invincibility."

On a side note, I enjoy reading Peter Singer's work, so the following may be a good read. Anyone read it?…

"One thing is certain, however. The aircraft carrier will not be the relevant weapon in the second half of the century. Continued overinvestment in them only ensures that the nations and possibly non-state groups that understand the future will be the ones that control the waves".


Wed, 05/27/2015 - 6:56pm

In reply to by Bill M.

If one is operating on the open Ocean and properly monitoring various electronic and other search capabilities, you should realize when you are a target and can take the needed counter actions. From a Navy prospective, the South China Sea, however, is a rather confined operating environment. Airborne and Surface Search Radar and sound detection capabilities will enable the Chinese to locate and target ships on the surface in that are.

Even more problematic, the Chinese will have or will construct Air and Naval bases on the Chinese Mainland and on Hainan Island bordering on the South China Sea sufficient to support their efforts in the event of a conflict with the U.S. They will also have, or perhaps do have, A2/AD missile and SAM batteries along those coastlines. All the Chinese need do is fly AEW patrols comparatively close to their shoreline and they can easily monitor shipping in that area. I presume they have (or will have) underwater sound search capabilities with positioned passive buoys, similar to our one time very effective SOSUS buoys, placed throughout the South China Sea. Passive listening gear can pick up ships at a rather far distance unlike active search methods.

It would be a comparatively simple matter for the Chinese to position enough fighter / attack aircraft (and subs) at bases along the South China Sea needed to overwhelm any opposing force attempting to operate in the confines of the South China Sea. Geography and potential force size are on their side, at least in today's era. Their missile carrying aircraft’s time to target would be rather brief. And while, based on my conversations with today’s Navy Officers and Chiefs, the Aegis system appears rather effective, how many of those ships would the Navy have available and be willing to put at risk in a confined operating area. Also, any Task Group operating in the South China Sea would need substantial ASW capability from escorting ships and Patrol Aircraft. The thought of positioning a Carrier in that confined area would be / should be far too risky to consider – given the Chinese as one’s potential opponent.

Our Navy of today is rather smaller in size compared with that of past years. The Navy into which I was commissioned had over 900 ships and two decades later(if I recall correctly) 700+ ships. We had more Destroyers and Destroyer Escorts than there are ships in today’s Navy. I realize today’s weapons and search systems are more effective than were ours, but (at least for the present) quantity still has a quality of its own on the Sea – and perhaps everywhere. Ships only carry a limited number of weapons batteries, ammunition and missiles. To increase one’s defensive fire capabilities, one needs more ships – and today we don’t have a sufficient number. Today’s U.S. Navy, cannot successfully conduct operations close to shore, or in confined operating area, if faced with a hostile opponent with a military the size of China's.

As a former (retired) Commanding Officer of an SSN noted, when discussing the potential situation with the Chinese, he wouldn’t want to take his sub into that confined area. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on a surface ship in that area if we had to contend with Chinese Air Power and their (conventional) subs. The subs by themselves, okay, but the Chinese aren’t dumb enough for that contest.

There is little to nothing of value for sea borne operations that other nations in that area could provide. Even their subs (which some are acquiring) would in a conflict be destroyed by the Chinese the moment they tried to re-enter their ports -- and at some point they would have to go back into port, or what was left of those ports.

Given today’s electronic and other search capabilities and the potential size of a Chinese response, the South China Sea is too confined an area of operations in which to successfully compete with the Chinese. Perhaps, when we finally have available and equip Ships with Laser weapons with adequate target lock on capability and a high rate of fire and accuracy (and they will in the future) along with underwater drone operated based ASW systems and weapons, then the dynamics of that situation will change to our favor. Then we would have the capability to operate successfully in various confined seas with a high probability of success -- without the need for a large number of ships. That level of firepower and targeting capabilities would change the calculus in our favor.

Bill M.

Wed, 05/27/2015 - 8:38am

In reply to by CBCalif

Can you clarify your comment so a ground pounder like me can understand your argument. You wrote,

"If the U.S. is foolish enough to enter into a conflict with China in (for instance) the South China Sea, our forces will most assuredly meet with disaster. Having deployed many time into that body of Water as Ships Company (1100) on a DD, DE, and a Carrier, I am rather familiar with that operating environment."

Why? Seems like the Chinese would face the same environmental challenges we have to face, and so far we have more allies in the region, so why would the U.S. Navy meet with disaster?


Tue, 05/26/2015 - 11:51pm

While “neither Operation Iraqi Freedom nor Enduring Freedom presented the U.S. Navy with major opposition at sea,” that fact did not / does not alter the strategic level mission objectives for which this nation maintains a Navy, nor does it indicate from which countries a threat to that mission could arise should the U.S. Navy ever fail to have sufficient forces and (technical) capabilities available to carry out its mission. To paraphrase Sun Tzu – the successful nation (and therefore its military) obtains its strategic objectives without needing to fight. To date that standard epitomizes the effectiveness of the U.S. Navy in carrying out its mission to insure that those areas of the Sea (the Sea Routes) on which this nation’s commerce and other communications rely remains secure from meaningful threat.

In its Winter 2014/21014 edition, Parameters included a rather interesting and informative article titled “China’s Concept of Military Strategy.” On page 45, its author noted, “Li warns against laying too much stress on previous experience, noting that tradition has a dual nature. It is both valuable for its historical wealth and a danger due to its tendency to exert historical inertia.” Li is correct, and one must be rather careful when attempting to apply the lessons of some historically distant battle or event to today’s operating conditions.

Today’s meaningful threat at Sea to U.S. interests could come from the Submarine forces of possible adversaries – given the proliferation of submarines in the Navies of smaller countries, and from aircraft of foreign nations attempting to close nearby sea lanes. The same could hold true for the Navy’s mission to provide a shipboard anti-missile shield to areas potentially threatened by adversarial forces – nuclear armed or not. In addition, due to the operating nature of its Nuclear Submarines, providing an arm of the Nation’s strategic nuclear response capability is another Navy Mission. Temporarily providing Sea Power ashore in support of political goals is another mission of the Navy s would be insuring sea borne logistical support for ground forces campaigning overseas.

Being able to successfully carryout its many missions requires the Navy possess the necessary ships and hardware – with the technical capabilities and performance levels that insures mission success. As the saying has aptly noted, the Navy mans the equipment, the Army equips the man – which in many respects sums up the difference in the type of operating problem and operating environment in which the two forces find themselves conducting operations. Of course, manning (and maneuvering) ships, aircraft, and their equipment requires Officers, Chiefs, and Sailors skilled in both operational and technical matters.

While “communications and data networks that facilitate centralized control have proliferated throughout the fleet,” any “analysis of the Command and Control (C2) organizations of western navies [that] suggests a link between advances in communication technologies and an initial tendency to centralize C2 result[s] in a loss of initiative and combat effectiveness” would have to be based on recent experiences – in operating environments given technical capabilities similar to those of today in the operating conditions in which the Navy could find itself. It also depends on what level of centralization one is discussing.

Unlike the Nation’s ground forces, the Navy has been lucky enough not to have been committed to a hostile environment, under operating conditions, that will ensure its strategic failure. The Navy operates on, under, and over the Sea. We will never again face the Fleet problems of the type associated with fighting the Japanese in the Philippine Sea operating area of World War II. The ascending Nation in that part of the world will be / is China. If the U.S. is foolish enough to enter into a conflict with China in (for instance) the South China Sea, our forces will most assuredly meet with disaster. Having deployed many time into that body of Water as Ships Company (1100) on a DD, DE, and a Carrier, I am rather familiar with that operating environment.

At the operating levels and environments in which the U.S. Navy will find itself operating, even in the Persian Gulf area and its neighboring waters, Command and Control can be essential to the success of a given Navy effort. Given the operating distances involved, the technical capabilities needed, the weather, etc – it seems unlikely that operations at Sea could successfully be operationally controlled from the Pentagon or from CINPAC in Hawaii.

However, the CO’s of individual DD type ships escorting a Carrier or the PPO of escorting Patrol Aircraft cannot (for instance) be allowed to decide on their own whether to pursue a potentially detected undersea contact, and so maneuver as to leave a gap in the screen (if that would be the resulting situation), absent the underwater contact appearing to pose an extreme threat due to its course, speed, etc. Command and Control at the task Group level in that operating environment is generally critical. It is up to the Task Group Commander to decide whether mission success depends on simply avoiding successful threats (thereby nullifying the subs value) or sinking an opposing sub. The same holds true (given exceptions of the above direct type threat criteria) when managing an interlocked anti-missile / anti-air Aegis environment.

Surface Task Groups cannot operationally function successfully with the degree of operating (command and control) freedom necessarily provided to VF type aircraft going into a dog fight, carrying out attack type missions, carrying out CAS missions, etc in that type of environment. Their operating environments are rather dissimilar.

Everything is situational dependent.