Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Restoring the U.S. Navy’s Electronic Warfare Prowess: The Gospel Spreads

Last month I wrote about LCDR Jack Curtis’s excellent article at the Bridge regarding the Navy’s need to resurrect its late Cold War-era skills for fighting in opposed electromagnetic environments. I also noted Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work’s commentaries along the same lines. 

It isn’t often that electronic warfare topics like these get public attention. That’s extremely unfortunate given the centrality of electronic warfare to maritime combat. Granted, classification can be a barrier with respect to specifics. But the general principles are—and have always been—unclassified. I’m often amazed by how often electronic warfare considerations are overlooked in commentaries on modern warfare; such oversights detract from informed debate.
That’s why I truly appreciate the publication of good articles on electronic warfare in widely-read defense journals. This month’s Proceedings contains two pieces that meet this standard. Unfortunately, both lie behind the Naval Institute’s paywall. If you subscribe or have access to the magazine hardcopy, they are must-reads.
The first is an analysis by CAPT Patrick Molenda regarding the importance of mission command to operations under electromagnetic opposition. Mission command is sometimes referred to as either “mission-type orders” or ‘action in accordance with higher echelon commander’s intent;’ command by negation doctrine is closely related. Regardless of what you choose to call it, though, this approach to C2 is incontrovertibly critical to operating in areas where radiofrequency communications are—unless concealed using highly-directional line-of-sight pathways or advanced low probability of intercept waveforms—readily exploitable by an electronic warfare-savvy adversary. Inside a combat zone, a unit’s casual decision to transmit on a radio or employ a radar without using those kinds of protections could easily end up being suicidal.
Molenda discusses the potential misalignment of the Navy’s operational-level staffs with the actual levels of war, and the implications this has for the service’s C2 architectures. He also correctly observes that these (and higher-tier) staffs’ network-age addiction to real and near-real time tactical information drawn from the unit-level would be extraordinarily difficult to sustain in an opposed electromagnetic environment, would be rife with exploitable vulnerabilities, and  is corrosive to cultivating tactical initiative and agility:
“Not only does this practice neuter trust between commanders and subordinates, it stifles decentralized execution by paralyzing initiative. The relentless demand for detailed information from senior staffs is not simply a distraction; it changes the very fabric of C2. Granted, there is a valid need for commanders at all levels to share a common operating picture so decisions can be made in response to enemy actions or changing conditions. However, if the intent of information extraction is not to adjust plans, reapportion forces, or to counter enemy moves, then what purpose does this really serve? It seems the answer all too often is the implied (or even specified, in many cases) requirement for all levels to know specifically what’s going on at any given moment to satisfy the next layer of command’s similar information requirements. This characterization makes for an interesting case study in organizational efficiency, but in future conflicts, could very well prove disastrous. It’s quite possible that the Navy could face an adversary in the not-too-distant future that not only has the ability to disrupt critical communications, but can also deploy non-kinetic fires to its advantage. The first time commanders find themselves in a communications vacuum as a result of such actions is not the time to be figuring out the processes needed to stay plugged into the fight.” (Pg. 37)
This potentially dire outcome serves as his lead-in argument for mission command:
“Without a C2 framework designed to align with the appropriate levels of war, it’s extremely difficult to execute the effective and nimble battle rhythm required to harmonize disparate tactical actions to achieve operational-level objectives. This is especially true in the case of an adversary with the ability to inhibit electromagnetic freedom of action. It will take innovation, education, training, practice, discipline, and most of all trust in subordinate commanders to get this right.
While many would equate innovation with the implementation of game-changing technology, an equally powerful component of innovation are concepts that incorporate new tactics, techniques, and procedures that enable game-changing effects. While mission command is not a radical concept in theory, instilling the culture to execute it in today’s Navy is.”(Pg. 37)
I couldn’t agree more.
Further, he is absolutely correct that the top-down embrace of mission command within the Navy is essential to being able to fully capitalize on emerging electronic warfare capabilities. Groups of friendly units (not all of whom will be Navy) will need to be able cooperatively execute complex tactical tasks despite highly restrictive emissions control if they are to avoid being attacked effectively by a competent adversary from over-the-horizon. Any friendly use of deception will require extraordinarily disciplined emissions control as well. Mission command is what will allow units to self-organize and coordinate their actions under such circumstances. Trust between echelons of command, not to mention amongst peers in a task force or group, can in fact be a very powerful weapon. As the CAPT notes in his closing observation:
“To dominate the information realm, the Navy must truly embrace mission command enabled by trusted commanders at all levels through proper C2 alignment. This, along with judicious use of the electronic spectrum and sound tactical doctrine, employment, and training, is ultimately what will unleash the true power of electromagnetic maneuver warfare.”(Pg. 39)
Later in the issue, Norman Friedman hammers these points home in his World Naval Developments column. Friedman, it should be remembered, is the preeminent expert on how the Navy employed electronic warfare throughout the Cold War to defang the Soviet Ocean Surveillance System. He therefore speaks with an authoritative voice when he seconds Molenda’s arguments:
“…we must learn to shut down our emissions. Our radars and radios buy us a great deal tactically, but they also tell our enemies where to find us. At the least, we ought to be able to rely far more on airborne sensors…
…by making ourselves less visible we may be able to deceive our enemies into wasting their efforts or exposing valuable platforms…
The central lesson of the Cold War is that big antiship strikes are not inherently easy to mount. Whoever shoots has a limited number of weapons, and in many cases the shooters are giving away their positions and making themselves vulnerable. It is difficult enough to shoot at even moderate ranges because ocean surveillance is never easy. Shots wasted on non-targets merely alert the intended victim. The more ships that are involved on the other side, the better the chance that a deceiver can cause ships or shore batteries to fire at each other. We can make attacks against us extremely difficult if we fully understand what our enemies have to do to deal with us. We were once extremely good at that; we can be again.” (Pg. 162-163)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: electronic warfare prowess is not a silver bullet for modern victories at sea. All the same, it’s hard to envision a path to such victories—let alone avoiding defeats—without it. The more this becomes recognized and internalized at all levels of the Navy, the better off the Navy will be.

 The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis, and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Navy’s Combat Logistics Force and the 21st Century Threat Environment

Then-USS Arctic (AOE-8), Undated. (U.S. Navy Photo)
Note NATO Sea Sparrow launcher, forward Close-In Weapons System mount, and deckhouse-mounted SLQ-32(V)3.
Jon’s note: I’d like to introduce a new navalist voice, Chris Mclachlan. Although he’s at the start of his professional career, I’ve been thoroughly impressed by his maritime strategic insight over the several months he and I have been discussing such topics. When he suggested to me that he wanted to write about the logistical aspects of fighting a major war at sea in the Western Pacific, I lobbied hard for him to allow me to publish his work here at ID. I think you’ll see why.

On July 31, 2014, the House Armed Service Committee Subcommittee on Seapower and Force Projections convened a hearing to discuss Sealift Force Assessment. One concern expressed at the hearing was by Rep. J. Randy Forbes, the committee’s chairman, regarding the ability of the Navy’s Combat Logistics Force (CLF) to conduct its mission in a contested environment. Without increasing the CLF’s current level of capabilities to survive in such environments as well as shuttle fuel, ammunition, and stores to forward naval forces, the U.S. Navy will not be able to meet emerging threats in the Asia-Pacific. Currently, there has been little internal or public discussion on the ability of the CLF to sustain the operational tempo demanded of the Navy in a major conflict, let alone do so within a combat zone.

The current logistics fleet is derived from the 1992 “. . . From the Sea” and 1994 “Forward. . . From the Sea” strategic concept documents.  These concepts were based on the premise of general U.S. command of the open oceans, which meant that the Navy could focus much of its efforts in the littorals. The Navy’s ability to obtain virtually de facto sea control in the post-Cold War era allowed it to project power from close to adversaries’ coastlines and then be resupplied from sanctuaries these adversaries simply could not touch. It follows that the Navy did not foresee a need to escort its logistics ships to and from these underway replenishment locations. Nor did it assess that the logistics ships retained the need to defend themselves against missile or torpedo attacks. The Navy’s decision to replace the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigates with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was greatly informed by this view.

Potential adversaries’ advancing capabilities for denying access and limiting freedom of maneuver in contested maritime areas have effectively negated the underlying premises of the Navy’s post-Cold War strategic concepts. In particular, China’s inability to seriously challenge the U.S. Navy during the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis persuaded it to develop capabilities to disrupt the U.S.’s ability to intervene militarily against Beijing’s interests in East Asia. Submarines, mines, land-based fighter and bomber aircraft, land-based strike missiles, advanced air defense systems are the major elements of China’s capabilities for denying maritime access to the East Asian theater. The employment of many of these weapons are cued by networked wide-area surveillance/reconnaissance systems located on Chinese soil, in the air, at sea, and in space.

The new environment poses a significant danger to U.S. naval operations. With a considerable forward presence in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. Navy must sustain operations over what is often referred to as the “tyranny of distance.” Once in theater, if warships are unable to replenish at sea, they must then return to a friendly port. The process of transiting to a port, replenishing and then returning to a forward operating area may take days or even weeks. Forward ports and naval facilities are also becoming increasingly vulnerable to theater-range precision guided munitions. Such delays and risks would be untenable in a major conflict.

And yet, no moves have been made to arm the logistics fleet with point defense weaponry. Further threatening the CLF’s ability to operate in opposed environments is the Navy’s declining surface combatant force structure. The final retirement of all the Navy’s FFGs this year will have a major impact on the defensibility of forward- deployed ships’ logistical support chains. As previously noted, the LCS is incapable in its current and planned configurations to assume the FFGs’ Cold War-era role screening logistics ships’ movements in contested waters. The lack of  small surface combatants with medium range air defense and anti-submarine capabilities  means that vital DDGs would be utilized as CLF escorts instead of being utilized in carrier battlegroups or surface action groups. The forthcoming LCS-derived frigate will address only the anti-submarine portion of this capability gap.

In addition to the loss of the FFG escorts, the retirement of all of the Navy’s T-AOEs will further amplify the fleet’s combat logistics dilemma. T-AOEs are the most important logistic ship in the Navy’s inventory as the ship provides a “one stop shop” for combatants as it carries marine fuel, aviation fuel, dry stores, and munitions. Furthermore, it is the only replenishment ship that is fast enough to keep up with a carrier battle group and thus remain within its protective air, surface, and subsurface defenses. Due to budgetary constraints the Navy is planning on putting two T-AOEs in reduced status while keeping two in service. Without the T-AOEs the Navy is left with the less capable but more numerous T-AO and T-AKEs which supply fuel and ammunition/dry stores respectively. Both the T-AOs and T-AKEs are incapable of matching the speed of the carrier battle group and require more time to replenish combatants. Furthermore, it is not clear the Navy and the Military Sealift Command have enough of these ships to sustain a high operational tempo in a major conflict, or how severely CLF losses  would degrade this tempo. This represents a crucial area for war-gaming as well as campaign analysis.

Although the current logistics model was adequate for a post-Cold War world in which the U.S. Navy maintained essentially-uncontested command over the world’s oceans, potential adversaries’ development of advanced maritime denial capabilities demands a new approach. Fleet structure and composition is not properly aligned to support forward positioned surface combatants in a contested environment for extended periods of time. Ensuring timely and consistent logistics support to these combatants is central to the U.S. Navy ensuring American maritime supremacy. The presence of forward forces is critical to U.S. security.  Logistics ships must receive basic self-defense capabilities as well as be provided sufficient escort support for their transits through and operations within opposed areas. The Navy also ought to retain logistics ships that are capable of operating as part of battle groups: in active service if possible, and in ready reserve if necessary. Failing to do these things could cost the Navy—and the nation—dearly in the event of a future war.

Chris Mclachlan currently works as a defense contractor. He recently spent time working on defense issues at the House of Representatives. The views presented in this article are his own.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Comparing the Patrol Coastal (PC) to the Littoral Combatant Ship (LCS)

LCS 1 and 2 (USNI)
     A 30 April Reuter’s article makes the claim that the U.S. Navy might better serve its operational and financial needs by purchasing more Patrol Coastal (PC) type warships at the expense of the Littoral Combatant Ship (LCS) currently in serial production and its projected frigate (FF) derivative. The article also suggests that purchasing 10 Sentinel class PC’s at a total cost of $70 million dollars would be a better choice than buying 10 LCS and would save taxpayers $3 billion dollars. While perhaps financially attractive on the surface, such a change would be an extremely poor choice for the United States Navy. The Cyclone class PC’s have served the nation well since their introduction in the early 1990’s, but their lifespan is nearly complete, and their limited capabilities not sufficient in even low threat environments. Few geographic regions support their extensive use. Neither the PC, nor its proposed Sentinel class patrol boat replacement, has the range or overall endurance of the LCS. Neither patrol craft can rapidly or economically deploy to remote locations in the absence of escorts or heavy lift capabilities. Finally, while the PC’s have been admirably adapted for a number of missions, they were never designed as combatant warships similar to vessels of similar size constructed by foreign navies since the end of the Second World War. The LCS, on the other hand, is capable of assuming all of the PC tasks and missions; is more survivable; and is rapidly re-deployable as required by national command authority.      

PC History

Patrol Coastal (PC's) at Sea
     The Cyclone class patrol coastal ships were proposed in 1990 as a replacement for the Navy Special Warfare (NSW) Command’s aging MK III patrol boats for insertion of SEAL team members.[1] The ships also met an earlier requirement for a more capable coastal patrol and interdiction asset for future escort missions like the 1987 tanker escort mission Earnest Will.[2] They were originally to be unnamed, but Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Frank Kelso decided, with the approval of the Secretary of the Navy to make them commissioned assets as NSW had never operated as big a patrol craft as the planned PC’s. They were placed under control of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), but crewed by qualified sailors of the regular Navy under NSW control. The PC's were later deemed too large for their original mission of SEAL insertion. Some were transferred from NSW to Atlantic and Pacific fleet commanders while five were assigned to service with the Coast Guard, where they proved largely uneconomical to operate.[3] All PC’s, with the exception of the first that was transferred to the Philippine Navy, have since returned to U.S. Navy control. Ten of the thirteen remaining PC’s are forward deployed in the Persian Gulf in a variety of patrol and interdiction roles.[4]
    The class was originally designed for 15 years of active service, but by 2010 all but the last unit of the class, the much newer USS Tornado, had “frame buckling and hull damage” consistent with “a full service life of operation, including the effects of corrosion and severe operating conditions.”[5] The Patrol ships have received a service life extension to correct the 2010 faults keep the ships theoretically in service into the decade of the 2020’s at a cost of $13 million dollars a ship, according to one estimate.[6] The ships have also received new weapons in the form of two, stabilized MK38, Mod 2 25mm gun systems, as well as the Griffin missile, which extends the PC’s engagement range beyond that of its guns to 4.5 kilometers.[7]

Inherent PC Limitations

PC's Deploy via Heavy Lift Ship in 2013 (Breaking Defense)
     While these improvements have made the Patrol Coastal a more capable ship since its introduction in the early 1990’s, they do not offset the PC and any replacement patrol boat’s inherent weaknesses as part of a globally operational U.S. navy. The endurance and sea keeping characteristics of the Cyclone class generally favor relatively calm waters like the Persian Gulf and to coastal areas with established bases. It cannot be rapidly or efficiently re-deployed to another global area in most cases without heavy lift support or escorts. A 2008 RAND study found the PC to be at the lower end of patrol ship capabilities in comparison with foreign counterparts, and their endurance (2500nm at 12kts) has been rated considerable lower than foreign warships of similar size and mission.[8] Its 11 day endurance limits its deployability beyond immediate logistical support. The smaller size and 5 day endurance of the proposed Sentinel class patrol boat replacement does nothing to offset these disadvantages.[9] PC’s and/or Sentinel’s would be hard-pressed to withdraw from contested littoral areas if required by reversals in the state of a conflict. A number of U.S. Navy small combatants of the Asiatic Fleet, similar in size and endurance to the Cyclone class attempted to flee the Philippines in the wake of the December 1941 Japanese attack. Nearly all were sunk by combination air and surface attacks to which their meager armament could offer only limited resistance. A global Navy demands ships that can advance or retreat across considerable ocean space if required. Neither the PC nor the Sentinel meets that requirement.
     A current PC might be built for 70 million dollars, but the Navy would need to purchase many more than 10 to provide the same global coverage currently envisioned for the 52 LCS/FF ships. Ten modern PC’s might replace those currently assigned in the Persian Gulf, but similar flotillas would need to built and based in multiple locations in order to gain the same world-wide deployment of assets. Unlike almost all other fleets, the U.S. Navy is a globally-deployed force that must retain the ability to shift units as needed in support of national security commitments or replace battle losses. Such movements are expensive when ships cannot rapidly move by the own power. Two Mine Countermeasures ships were moved from the Ingalls yard in Mississippi to Kuwait after the First Gulf War for $3.5 million U.S. dollars (USD). In 1997 the U.S. Military Sealift Command (MCS) chartered the heavy lift ship MV American Cormorant for 59 months at a cost of $59 million USD. The damaged USS Cole was returned from Aden, Yemen to the United States for an exclusive charter price of $5.1 million USD in 2001. [10] The U.S. Navy does not want to depend on such costly assets to move large numbers of small combatants around the world in either peacetime or war.

LCS Advantages

     The Littoral Combatant Ship was purposely constructed to replace the PC’s which had originally been scheduled to start retiring in 2002.[11] Both LCS types (Freedom and Independence) are faster than the PC and have nearly double the Patrol Coastal’s operational range at a higher average speed (18 knots for the LCS verses 12 knots for the PC). The LCS has double the patrol endurance (21 days vice 11) of the PC and four times that of the Sentinel. LCS can deploy in the absence of a heavy lift and dedicated escort, a process that has taken upward of 40 days from loading on the US Gulf Coast to arrival in Bahrain.[12] Both LCS designs are more “survivable” than the PC in that they are physically larger, have a more extensive defensive armament and have a greater range for onboard, non-networked sensors due to their greater height above the waterline. The LCS’ flight deck and hangar enable it to embark manned and unmanned rotary wing aircraft that extend the ship’s surveillance and weapons engagement zones. LCS is a self-deployable, theater-based platform that can “get to the contested area without the need for scarce open ocean transport or the support of an ever-present mother ship.”[13] The PC and any replacement craft will be dependent on such assets outside its immediate regional operating area.

The Commissioning Crew of USS Shamal (PC 13) in January 1996
The author served as Weapons/Supply Officer
     The PC’s have been an excellent investment since their beginnings in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. They have remained in service long after their anticipated retirement date and now boast weapons that make them much more capable than when first commissioned at the dawn of the post-Cold War era. They have served as a vital training ground for a generation of young commanders; at least two of whom have reached flag rank (Admirals Charles Williams and Brad Williamson). They continue to perform vital maritime interdiction operations in the Persian Gulf in support of national interests. All this said, the PC’s are aging, short-range platforms operationally chained to the region where they currently operate. Their improved  armament makes them more effective in patrol and interdiction operations, but they remain vulnerable to cruise missiles, aircraft and subsurface weapons. They are not a substitute for the globally deployable and more capable LCS class’s now entering service.




[1] Norman Polmar, Ships and Aircraft of the United States Fleet, Annapolis, Md, Naval Institute Press, 2005, p. 216.
[2] Dennis Doyle, Joseph Mayer and Frank McCarthey, “The Patrol Coastal Cyclone class, A Description of the Newest Addition to the U.S. Navy”, Abstract 1993; 3.
[3] Polmar, p. 217.
[4] David Axe, “Congress Hates on the Tiniest Warships”, War is Boring blog, 21 April 2015.
[5] http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=56004 (2010 Naval Sea Systems Command Press release on emergent repairs to the Cyclone class coastal patrol ships)
[6] http://www.seapower-digital.com/seapower/201011?folio=40#pg42 (Navy League Seapower Magazine article on PC hull damage in November 2010.)
[7] http://defensetech.org/2014/05/08/navy-test-fires-griffin-missiles-from-pc-boats/ (May 2014 Chris Osborne Defense Tech article on installation and testing of Griffin missile on PC-1 class ships)
[9] http://www.uscg.mil/ACQUISITION/newsroom/pdf/sentinelmediabrief.pdf
[10] http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a476466.pdf, NSWC Carderock paper on Expeditionary Heavy Lift capabilities.
[12] http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/flo-flo.htm, (describes movement of MCM’s by heavy lift asset)
[13] http://awin.aviationweek.com/Portals/AWeek/Ares/work%20white%20paper.PDF Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work’s Naval War College Newport paper on the history of the LCS, p. 13.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

AEI/Heritage Weekly Navy Read Board

Courtesy HASC Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee

Upcoming Events
Fr:        1200            World War II Victory Capitol Flyover
Scuttlebutt (News)
·       Seapower Markup Supports US Navy Programs The US Navy's fiscal 2016 budget submissions in general enjoy support on Capitol Hill, but questions remain about several programs and certain strategic direction aspects.
·       U.S. Navy Starts to Accompany Ships in Strait Where Iran Seized Cargo Carrier Navy warships are providing greater protection for U.S.-flagged vessels moving through the Strait of Hormuz in response to the seizure of M/V Maersk Tigris on April 28.
·       Inside the New U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines The new guidelines empower the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to protect American assets and work more closely with their American counterparts.
·       Navy Conducts Successful Test of Aerial Refueling with X-47B, UCAS-D Program Ending The test was the Navy’s first autonomous in-flight refueling and marks the end of the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicle demonstrator (UCAS-D) program.
Now Hear This (Opinions)
·       America’s Defense Still Requires Aircraft Carriers The ability to project power ashore from a constantly moving platform at sea remains this nation’s primary competitive military advantage in a world in which our interests are often found thousands of miles from our own shores.
·       The Navy’s New Museum Drone and Strategic Malpractice The need to take advantage of unmanned and increasingly autonomous systems to preserve the aircraft carrier’s operational relevance in anticipated threat environments is obvious.
·       Rep. Forbes Letter to SECNAV Mabus on X-47B Testing Rep. Forbes asks the Navy to consider additional testing for the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D).

Fact of the Week:  According to the US Navy, approximately 20-25 U.S.-flagged ships transit the Strait of Hormuz each month.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Fork in the Road at Lexington Green: A Cautionary Tale of Tactical Decision-Making at the Precipice of War

The Lexington Minuteman Statue (Author's Photo)
Jon's note: I was aiming to finish this piece honoring the citizen-soldiers of colonial Massachusetts in time for Patriots' Day; I'll settle for the proper month of the year.

19 April was the 240th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. On that day in 1775, a British composite force of roughly 700 regulars and marines was dispatched from their Boston garrison to raid the Massachusetts colonial militia’s stockpiled arms and materiel in Concord. The resultant clashes that morning at Lexington Green and North Bridge were but minor skirmishes compared to the series of engagements that occurred during the raiding force’s afternoon withdrawal to Boston. The British raiders would have been annihilated had it not been for their timely reinforcement with a brigade of regulars on the return trip; the latter alone suffered an astounding 20% casualty rate during its several hours in the field. Whereas only 77 militiamen had met the British at sunrise, nearly 4,000 militiamen and elite minutemen from Boston’s environs had either clashed with or were maneuvering against the Crown’s troops by sunset.  Just 24 hours later, Boston was surrounded by nearly 20,000 militiamen.[1] Many of these men would go on to form the nucleus of the initial Continental Army raised by the Second Continental Congress and commanded by George Washington.
While militarily insignificant in comparison to the afternoon’s running battle, the Lexington salvo and its sequel at North Bridge could not have been more politically and morally decisive. In both cases, British professional soldiers fired first at Massachusetts citizen-soldiers even though the latter’s organized ranks had not aimed weapons at the former’s. The British thereby set the war-opening escalation precedents, with concomitant effects on public opinion in the colonies as well as in Britain (albeit aided by the American Whigs’ vastly superior strategic communications efforts).[2] The American Whigs’ passions for and commitment to their cause were galvanized accordingly; the same cannot be said of British popular (or Parliamentary) sentiments.
It’s a given that an armed conflict of some scale between the Massachusetts Whigs and the Crown’s troops was nearly unavoidable. The political objectives of the British government and the Whig-dominated Massachusetts Provincial Congress were fundamentally at odds, and the latter’s de facto political control over the Massachusetts countryside represented a direct threat to British sovereignty over the colony. Nor could the British tolerate the Whigs’ organization of the colony’s militia units into a well-armed, highly trained, and quickly-mobilizable army controlled by and accountable to the Provincial Congress.
But as we will see, it is not a given that the events of 19 April would unfold as they did. Had the opening volley occurred under different tactical circumstances that day, who’s to say that the Whigs would have captured the political and moral high ground at all? In fact, it is theoretically possible that a different set of British tactical decisions on Lexington Green could have avoided a clash there altogether. Or perhaps with greater British restraint upon entering the town’s center, the way the encounter unfolded might not have been as favorable to the Whig cause.
General Thomas Gage
It’s important to note that General Thomas Gage, governor of the Massachusetts colony and commander of the British forces based in the city, fully accepted the possibility of a violent encounter. Gage had received orders from London on 14 April to preemptively decapitate the growing rebellion. The general no doubt reasoned that the most effective means of accomplishing this task was to eliminate the militia’s depot in Concord, as the other major depot in Worcester was out of range for a quick strike. Since every British expedition outside the Boston the previous fall and winter had been met by militia units from the surrounding towns, Gage had every reason to expect the same would occur during the Concord operation. His thinking was almost certainly colored by the failed British attempt to seize cannon in Salem two months earlier; that ‘surprise’ raid had only narrowly escaped coming to blows with the local militia.
It is not shocking, then, that Gage’s first draft of orders for the Concord operation specified that “if any body [‘of men’ inserted above the line] dares [‘attack’ written, then crossed out] oppose you with arms, you will warn them to disperse [‘and’ written, then crossed out] or attack them.”[3] The actual written orders issued to the raid commander, Colonel Francis Smith, did not contain any explicit direction as to what should be done under such circumstances. I agree with historian John Galvin that Gage’s guidance to Smith regarding rules of engagement was likely verbal as to avoid creating a paper trail for an operation Gage had every reason to believe would result in bloodshed.
Colonel Francis Smith
Gage likely assumed that Smith’s force’s size and training would allow it to dominate the handfuls of militia units that he believed would be able to respond in the worst case. His plan was further predicated on operational surprise reducing the speed and mass of the militia’s reaction. Gage simply did not appreciate how the militia’s century-old networks for communicating warning across the colony, doctrine and posture supporting rapid mobilization, and practice in conducting decentralized operations in accordance with a higher-echelon commander’s intent completely undermined his raid plan.[4]
As we well know, superior Whig intelligence collection efforts enabled Paul Revere’s and William Dawes’s triggering of the militia’s warning network on the night of 18-19 April. Between that warning and the delays Smith suffered while ferrying his force across the Charles River to Cambridge, the Lexington militia company under Captain John Parker was fully ready on the town’s Green as Smith approached along the road to Concord that morning. Parker had not received rules of engagement from his regimental commander specific to this particular British expedition, and there’s no evidence that Parker’s orders to his men departed from the Massachusetts militia’s de facto practice of authorizing the use of force only in self-defense or to counter direct attacks against their towns. When his scouts reported the British were minutes away, Parker lined his company up on the Green perpendicular to the road from Boston roughly 100 yards from where the road forked at the triangular Green’s apex. This standoff distance was at the fringe of effective musket range against an opposing formation. He did not place his men in a battle-ready formation. All evidence points to Parker seeking to demonstrate his company’s resolve to the British and thereby deter aggression against the town.[5]
Major John Pitcairn
Smith’s leading elements of regulars under his deputy commander, Royal Marine Major John Pitcairn, approached Lexington Green with muskets loaded and primed. Several factors led to this weapons posture. For one thing, Smith’s force had not progressed very far from its landing area in Cambridge before it became apparent that militia throughout the region were mobilizing and that any chance at operational surprise had been lost. Smith’s scouts, including a party that had briefly captured Paul Revere earlier that morning, had also collected ‘rumor intelligence’ of up to 600 militiamen waiting for the British in Lexington. Just outside the town, Pitcairn’s own scouts reported a lone figure had attempted to fire at them but failed when his musket misfired.[6] Pitcairn and Smith consequently had every reason to believe that they might be entering a hostile situation. Their decision to move to a high weapons posture, then, was logical from a self-defense standpoint.
But inherent self-defense was not their only possible motivation. Gage’s first draft of his operation order suggests that he defined ‘opposition’ by an armed militia unit to mean such a unit’s presence within immediate tactical reach of Smith’s force, that this presence alone would satisfy demonstration of hostile intent (from our modern rules of engagement standpoint), and that Smith was therefore authorized to decide for himself whether or not to warn a militia unit prior to employing lethal force. Given that the entire strategic purpose of the operation was to decisively ‘break’ the rebellion, it is logical to assume Gage verbally empowered Smith (and Pitcairn by extension) to order a precedent-setting first volley for purposes other than the column’s inherent self-defense. It seems to have never occurred to them that the particular circumstances in play on the occasion of setting such a precedent might matter far more than the demonstration of power and resolve they might mean to convey.
Even so, a deliberate move to set a conflict-opening precedent would require that Smith and Pitcairn possess tight tactical control over their force’s firing discipline. Pitcairn claimed in his post-battle deposition that his final order to the British infantry companies on Lexington Green in the moments before the fateful first shot was the equivalent of what today we would call “Weapons Tight.”[7] But Pitcairn did not have tight control over those companies thanks to the actions of a single subordinate, Royal Marine Lieutenant Jesse Adair. London loaded the muzzle and primed the pan, so to speak. Gage aimed the weapon; Smith and Pitcairn were merely the executors. Adair is the man who placed his finger on the hair-trigger.
Adair was reportedly a ‘forward-leaning’ (but at 36 years of age, hardly young) junior officer.[8] He did not hold any command or staff responsibilities in Smith’s force; he was an ‘at-large’ officer in the expedition. Earlier in the morning he had served alongside a few of his peers as Pitcairn’s scouts; this was the group that reported the firing attempt by the ‘lone gunman’ outside Lexington. He and five other ‘at-large’ junior officers accompanied the expedition’s leading companies as they entered Lexington center and found Parker’s Lexington militia company positioned on the Green.
Situation on Lexington Green, roughly 0520 on 19 April 1775 (from Fischer, 192)
In their post-battle depositions, Adair’s compatriots claimed that several hundred militiamen were arrayed before them.[9] Their estimates were likely skewed by the fact that the Lexington Meetinghouse at the Green’s apex obscured full view of the field, not to mention the ‘intelligence’ regarding the Lexington militia’s strength they had collected earlier. Adair almost certainly interpreted Parker’s parade-ground formation as a threat to the British column, even as far back from the road as Parker had positioned his men.
If we assume Adair had authority to order the tactical employment of units not under his formal command (a disturbing proposition to say the least), then what were his options? He or one of his colleagues could have ordered the column to halt and then he or a colleague could have personally scouted the Green to assess the situation and perhaps even speak with Parker. He could ordered the column down the left fork in the road towards Concord and then detached several companies into flanking positions along the Green perpendicular to Parker’s formation so that the latter could not pivot and fire into the main column as it marched by. These two options exemplified restraint in a precipice-of-war situation. They would have allowed time and space for more measured decision-making.
Instead, Adair chose to dispatch several companies down the right fork in the road and into the Green to directly parallel the Lexington company at close range. The quick march he ordered past the Meetinghouse’s north side reportedly became a charge; the two companies of light infantry halted 70 yards from Parker’s men. At the same time, the horse-mounted Pitcairn rode around the Meetinghouse’s south side and onto the Green while the rest of the column turned left at the fork and then halted on the Concord road. By all accounts, combination of British regulars’ “huzzah” cries and the bellowed orders from Adair, the other ‘at-large’ junior officers on the Green, and Pitcairn made any British attempt to exercise tight tactical control impossible. At least some British officers, probably from Adair’s group on the battle line, yelled at Parker’s company to disperse. Measuring the situation, Parker ordered his men to do exactly that. Seeing the militiamen begin to withdraw, Pitcairn ordered the regulars on the battle line to “surround and disarm” them—an action that can only be explained by his not appreciating Parker’s attempt at deescalation.[10] The confusion and sense of imminent danger on both sides must have been profound. Little wonder, then, that shots rang out.
Looking east from the left side of the Lexington Militia Company's lines towards the Green's apex. British battle formation was roughly 70 yards forward from this position. (Author's Photo)
The British were convinced the first shot came from one or more militiamen withdrawing through the area behind Buckman Tavern across from the north side of the Green, or perhaps from a rogue sniper in or behind the tavern itself. The militiamen were convinced one or more British officers fired first with pistols.[11] I agree with historian David Hackett Fischer’s conclusion that both sides’ accounts are probably true, and that if there was a singular ‘first shot’ by someone on one side (whether accidental or deliberate) it occurred almost simultaneously with a singular first shot by someone on the other side.
The post-battle depositions on both sides, though, are consistent in asserting that Parker’s men on the Green did not fire first. And yet they were exactly who came under fire from the British companies on the battle line. The only legitimate targets, if any, were not on the Green. By indiscriminately engaging Parker’s men on the Green, the British undercut any claim to inherent self-defense. In doing so, and as pointed out earlier, they also undercut their political and moral position. The fact that Smith’s expedition failed to achieve any of its operational objectives in Concord and was nearly destroyed on the return trip, while very significant at the campaign-level, is strategically secondary.
Amos Doolittle's late 1775 engraving of the Lexington clash
The stupidity of Adair’s decision is magnified if we take the liberty of indulging in some counterfactuals. For instance, if there were in fact one or more Whig-aligned rogue gunmen not under Parker’s command in the vicinity of Buckman Tavern, then he (or they) would have found it harder to take the British under fire had Adair not deployed the two companies into the Green opposite Parker. Perhaps the rogue(s) could have maneuvered into a different position to engage the column on the Concord Road, but that would have only made it more clear that the fire had not come from Parker’s men. Granted, the subsequent chain of events would likely have been chaotic and might still have led to a direct exchange between Parker’s company and the British. Nevertheless, the facts on the ground would have been different—and the Whigs' assertions of the moral superiority of their cause might have been undercut.
It’s also entirely possible that the first shot would have occurred at North Bridge in Concord if it hadn’t in Lexington. Or perhaps the confrontation at North Bridge would not have resulted in an exchange of fire at all had all involved there not been aware of the hostilities a few hours earlier. All the same, it’s quite likely given Gage’s orders and the overall circumstances that some clash would have occurred either later that day or on a subsequent occasion. Such a clash would not necessarily have resulted from a strategically-impactful failure of British tactical decision-making.
It should be clear from this story that former U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak was quite correct with his concept of a “strategic corporal” two decades ago, except in the Lexington case it was a “strategic lieutenant” who ultimately directed the path of history. Any contemporary junior officer and his or her field grade commander could easily find themselves in a similar brink-of-war situation someday. Unlike the British government in April 1775, though, these modern officers’ political masters might actually want to avoid hostilities.
It follows that much should be learned from the many British operational and tactical mistakes that led to the clash on Lexington Green (of which I have only listed a few). In my opinion, the most important of these mistakes was Gage’s and his subordinates’ failure to appreciate that just because their government was willing to start a war to achieve its objectives didn’t mean the way the war started at the operational and tactical levels wasn’t of critical strategic importance. Neither Gage, nor Smith, nor Pitcairn made any discernable effort to think through exactly what ought to be sought or avoided in a first clash with the Whigs. Neither Smith nor Pitcairn made any discernable attempt to issue clear intentions to their subordinates regarding what to do in a confrontation, let alone to maintain tight tactical control over their force when actually in contact. As a result, they essentially tossed a lit matchbox in the form of Adair amidst several leaking barrels of gasoline. We should thank them for that, as while the results were disastrous to the Crown’s interests, they led directly to the birth of our democratic republic and its enshrinement of natural rights in law.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis, and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency.

[1] John R. Galvin. The Minute Men — The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution. (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2006): 99, 230, 236.
[2] David Hackett Fischer. Paul Revere’s Ride. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994): 275-276.
[3] Galvin, 100-101.
[4] Ibid, 6-33, 59-61.
[5] Ibid, 64, 122-124.
[6] Ibid, 119.
[7] Derek W. Beck. “Who Shot First? The Americans!” Journal of the American Revolution, 16 April 2014, accessed 4/23/15, http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/who-shot-first-the-americans/
[8] See 1. Ibid, 116; and 2. “Jesse ADAIR B. ABT 1739 D. BEF DEC 1818.” Ancestry.com, undated, accessed 4/23/15, http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nickblackhurst/pbl19276.html
[9] Beck, http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/who-shot-first-the-americans/
[10] See 1. Galvin, 124-125; 2. Fischer, 190-191, 3. Beck, http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/who-shot-first-the-americans/
[11] See 1. Fischer, 193-194; 2. Beck, http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/who-shot-first-the-americans/

site stats