Sunday, August 2, 2015

Iran's Escalating Shadow Wars

Weapons seized at sea 15 July. (Photo Credit - Gulf Daily News Online)
Beyond a hint of teargas in the air around Juffair and some additional off-limits areas for Sailors, the February 2011 Pearl Roundabout uprisings weren't terribly disruptive to the U.S. Navy's FIFTH Fleet, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain. However, recent indications that Iran has increased support to Bahraini Shia resistance elements show potential to put U.S. and U.K naval presence in the Kingdom at risk. Last week, a bombing outside a girls school near the predominantly Shia village of Sitra killed two policemen and wounded six other people.

Prior to this bombing, several likely related weapons seizures occurred:
  • 28 December 2013 - A shipment containing 38 blocks of C4 explosives and grenades was interdicted at sea. Additional material was found in a warehouse Al Qurayyah the next day. 
  • 15 March 2015 - Two Bahraini men were detained by Saudi Arabia for smuggling high explosives across the Gulf causeway from Bahrain, ostensibly for employment in the KSA. 
  • 6 June 2015 - IED components including C4, commercial detonators, advanced circuitry, chemicals, and mobile phones were seized from a warehouse near Manama. 
  • 15 July 2015 - Bahrain's coast guard seized an inbound vessel that had just linked up with another vessel outside of territorial waters containing 44 kg of C4, eight Kalashnikov assault rifles, 32 Kalashnikov magazines, ammunition, and detonators. One of the two suspects detained onboard admitted to receiving firearms and IED manufacturing training in Iran in August 2013 at an Iranian Revolutionary Guards' camp.
Up until recently, insurgent explosive devices in Bahrain consisted of smallish homemade black powder pipe bombs sometimes augmented with gas cylinders or gasoline containers.  The introduction of C4 high explosives and numerous recent smuggling actions represent an escalation in Iranian lethal aid to Shia resistance elements. Bahrain's interior ministry reported that there were similarities between the explosives and components seized in the Gulf with those used by Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian surrogate paramilitary group active in Iraq (which by the way, was responsible for the deaths of a number of American servicemembers during the height of the Iraq War).
Proxy warfare is Iran's favored method of expanding its influence across the Middle East. Shia militias in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria have benefited from lethal and non-lethal support generally smuggled in by the IRGC via air or ocean transport. Iran's primary unconventional warfare arm is the IRGC-Quds Force, very roughly equivalent to U.S. Army Special Forces.

As I discussed  here in 2013 and as evidenced in some of the seizures above, Iran continues to support its armed surrogates via the sea. As sanctions against Treasury Department designated terrorist entities are lifted, the nuclear deal with Iran will inevitably increase this nefarious activity. Even the National Security Advisor has admitted as much: “We should expect that some portion of that money would go to the Iranian military and could potentially be used for the kinds of bad behavior that we’ve seen in the region up until now,” Susan Rice said during a recent CNN interview of the up to $150 billion that will flow into regime coffers.

Specifically, the Vienna agreement lifts sanctions on a number of suspect organizations including Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) and South Shipping Line Iran, along with dozens of other global transportation entities, many of which are probably front companies for IRGC smuggling activities.  Regardless of any details contained in the agreement, it is very unlikely that the IRGC-QF will change its bellicose behavior unless the Ayatollah's regime itself changes.

Make no mistake, many of the human rights grievances expressed by Bahrain's Shia population leading up to the "14 February Revolution" of 2011 were legitimate, and deserve attention by Bahrain's Sunni rulers. But Iran's meddling in the conflict is troublesome, and increases the likelihood of sectarian violence spilling over to the American footprint in Bahrain. Given these developments, it would be wise if the US enhanced counter-UW efforts in the region. Intelligence sharing and interagency cooperation are key to disrupting the flow of lethal aid on the sea, air, and land.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Combined Arms Support to Submarine Operations

Last month in the conclusion to my series examining the Jeune École, I noted that Germany’s use of submarines in the Atlantic for theater denial and Guerre de Course during the two World Wars—while incredibly costly to the Allies in terms of blood and treasure—ultimately failed in large part because German surface combatants and land-based aircraft could not seriously offset Allied anti-submarine efforts.

German U-boats were on their own in the Atlantic during the First World War because their surface combatant brethren could not break through the Royal Navy’s North Sea blockade in numbers. Granted, a handful of German large and medium surface combatants were forward deployed when the war broke out, and a few Germany-based medium surface combatants and armed auxiliaries managed to access the Atlantic at various points over the war’s course. All of these warships, though, operated as commerce-raiders either by design or by default—and few managed to operate for longer than a handful of months before being neutralized. Allied anti-submarine forces, whether operating independently or (after April 1917) as convoy escorts, therefore only had to contend with their prey
Nor did U-boats receive substantive support from the Kriegsmarine’s surface forces during the Second World War. If anything, Germany was at an even steeper surface order of battle deficit relative to the Royal Navy than had been the case two decades earlier. As a result, and with the exception of the April-June 1940 Norwegian campaign, the Kriegsmarine once again principally used its larger surface combatants for commerce-raiding. Although the Kriegsmarine’s surface threat to Britain’s lines of communication with the Americas was peacemeal and limited to 1939-1941, the threat it posed to the allies’ lines to the Soviet Union through the Norwegian Sea was more serious and lasted until 1943. One could make the case that the Kriegsmarine’s large surface combatants based in Norway supported U-boats in the case of convoy PQ-17, but that stemmed from the British Admiralty erroneously ordering the convoy’s ships to scatter to their fates in the belief that German surface raiders including the Tirpitz were approaching (they were not). In any case, the sad story of PQ-17 was not repeated.
The advent of theater-range aircraft during the interwar years, however, meant that U-boats did receive some combined arms support. Specialized Luftwaffe bombers were fielded to provide surveillance and reconnaissance support to Kriegsmarine surface and submarine units. These bombers also conducted anti-ship raids of their own. The Luftwaffe was able to iteratively increase its oceanic reach throughout the war, established a dedicated command for maritime operations in the northeastern Atlantic, and introduced radio-controlled anti-ship weapons that permitted standoff attacks. The first combat use of one of these weapons, in fact, caused the allies to temporarily halt offensive anti-submarine Surface Action Group (SAG) operations in the Bay of Biscay; this provided U-boats based on the French Atlantic coast with a temporary window of opportunity for safer transits to and from the open ocean.
And yet, the Luftwaffe never operated enough aircraft to pose a persistent threat to allied convoys or offensive anti-submarine SAGs. Moreover, the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine never hammered out doctrine, communications protocols, or planning processes that could enable effective operational coordination. On-scene tactical coordination between aircraft and U-boats was sporadic; the occasional noteworthy successes that did occur did not translate into major campaign gains. Luftwaffe land-attack raids against major British ports, naval bases, and shipbuilding hubs to suppress convoy and SAG operations as well as new ship construction were sustained for only the first half of 1941, were largely ineffective in their operational purpose, and were ultimately discontinued. Most significantly, U-boats operating in the western and southern Atlantic were outside the Luftwaffe’s range—and thus were on their own.
The Soviet Union’s leading maritime strategist of the Cold War, Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, took note of all this. In his 1976 book The Sea Power of the State, Gorshkov observed that Germany’s Second World War U-boat operations ultimately failed to achieve their strategic objectives in part because they
“…did not have the support of other forces, notably, aircraft, which could have been an irreplaceable means of reconnaissance, to fulfill the tasks of destroying anti-submarine forces and also to act against the economy of the opponent, particularly his shipbuilding industry, and to inflict blows on cargo ships in the ocean.” (Pg 120)
Gorshkov then observed that while German U-boat operations were representative of the roles submarines should play in war, the Germans erred as
“Throughout the war not a single attempt was made to counter the anti-submarine forces of the Allies in an organized way from operating with total impunity.” (Pg 120-121)
Notwithstanding the irony that Soviet interests in the war were on the receiving end of the U-boat operations he lauded, Gorshkov appeared to be arguing that Soviet attack submarines should perform much the same roles in a notional conflict with the U.S. and NATO. He further seemed to argue that Soviet air forces should provide his submarines with the direct and indirect forms of support that he had outlined.
Whatever Gorshkov may have actually believed, his Navy’s planned use of submarines for barrier protection of the Soviet maritime periphery represented the polar opposite of what his book seemed to recommend. Part of this was due to the paramount Soviet military-strategic task of protecting the motherland from naval strikes, whether conventional or nuclear. Part of this was also due to Soviet leaders’ fears that their strategic nuclear reserve force—their SSBNs—might be subjected to wartime attrition via U.S. and NATO conventional offensive anti-submarine operations. If the U.S. and NATO could attain a superior ‘correlation of nuclear forces’ during the conventional fight, Soviet logic went, then the West would gain a major card to play in the bargaining over war termination. Soviet Naval Aviation, surface forces, and attack submarines were consequently tasked with preventing U.S. and NATO naval forces from attacking the SSBNs; comparatively few Soviet attack submarines were to be hurled at NATO’s trans-Atlantic lines of communication at the beginning of a war.
It follows that offensive strategic anti-submarine warfare was one of the primary reasons the 1980s U.S. Maritime Strategy emphasized forward operations within the Soviet oceanic periphery. The strategy suggested that if U.S. carrier battleforces in the Norwegian Sea and Northwest Pacific could weather or outright defeat Soviet anti-carrier forces’ onslaught early in a war, then U.S. and allied anti-submarine forces might gain more operational freedom to interdict older Soviet SSBNs (or any Soviet SSNs for that matter) attempting to break out through forward geographic chokepoints into the ‘world ocean.’ Moreover, U.S. naval airpower could also be theoretically used to suppress Soviet surface and airborne anti-submarine forces protecting the newer Soviet SSBNs’ bastion patrol boxes. If these Soviet anti-submarine forces could be suppressed, then U.S. and NATO SSNs operating against the bastions (or conducting land-attack cruise missile strikes into the Soviet Union, if so ordered) would only face opposition from their acoustically-inferior Soviet counterparts. In essence, the 1980s Maritime Strategy redirected Gorshkov’s logic regarding combined arms support of submarine operations against his own fleet.
The late Cold War is not the only example of U.S. combined arms support of submarine operations. Again, as I noted in my Jeune École series’ finale, U.S. offensive submarine operations against Japanese sea lines of communication during the Second World War benefitted indirectly from the Imperial Japanese Navy’s myopic fixation on fleet-on-fleet operations:
The U.S. Navy fast carrier task force’s advance across the Pacific arguably provided increasing amounts of indirect combined arms support to their submariner brethren over time by occupying the attention of Japanese naval resources that theoretically could have been assigned to convoy defenses or submarine-hunting groups. Although the Imperial Japanese Navy showed little interest in protecting convoys from submarines during the war, an absence of the U.S. Navy carrier threat in the Central Pacific after 1942 might have provided room for reallocating some Japanese fleet assets to anti-submarine tasks as Japanese merchant vessel losses mounted.
So what might these history lessons mean for future U.S. Navy doctrine and operating concepts?
For starters, it’s important to keep in mind that a submarine’s combat “invisibility” has never been absolute. If a submarine torpedoes a ship, then the other side’s anti-submarine forces gain a “flaming datum” to orient their search. If a submarine launches a missile or raises a periscope/ESM mast for too long within the other side’s effective radar (or visual) coverage and is detected, then the other side's hunters know precisely where to start their cordon and redetection efforts—or place quick-response weapons in the water. A submarine may be able to scan or shoot far enough away from an opponent’s anti-submarine aircraft or surface combatants to be able to “break datum” before the hunters can react effectively, but it cannot count on that favorable scenario always being available. And the closer a submarine operates to an adversary’s coast, the denser the coverage by the adversary’s anti-submarine sensors (whether seabed-mounted sonar arrays, ship and aircraft-mounted sonars/radars, or fishermen’s eyes) and platforms will be. These assets might not be able to find or shoot at the submarine, but their presence might unnecessarily complicate its mission. In some situations it might even delay or prevent the submarine from completing that mission.
In a major modern war, U.S. SSNs and SSGNs would be tasked with land-attack strikes, special forces insertion/extraction, and intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance collection within a contested zone’s inner reaches. The SSNs would additionally be tasked with forward anti-submarine and anti-surface operations. Just as was the case in the 1980s Maritime Strategy, our submarines might situationally benefit from some external help from other U.S. or allied forces in suppressing the adversary’s ability to conduct effective anti-submarine operations.
This help might take the form of aircraft performing anti-ship missile raids against enemy anti-submarine SAGs inside a contested zone. It might take the form of offensive sweeps by fighters against the adversary’s maritime patrol aircraft. The mere fact that adversary anti-submarine forces were attacked in a particular area in a particular way might induce the adversary to limit or cease operations in that area while it figures out how to adapt; this could be exploited to great effect by U.S. submarines even if the ‘pause’ only lasted for a few days.
External forces might also provide submarines with deception and concealment support. This might consist of air or surface naval operations that have the primary or secondary purpose of distracting the adversary’s attention from a U.S. submarine’s operating area. Or perhaps air or surface forces might release submarine-simulating unmanned underwater systems at some standoff distance from the adversary’s coast; these decoys could then “swim” forward into designated areas to confuse or distract the adversary’s anti-submarine forces.
External support to forward submarine operations might additionally include surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that report their surface pictures via interior lines of networking to a higher-echelon commander. The commander could then broadcast that information along with theater or national-level naval intelligence information “in the blind” for our submarines to receive and use for their purposes.
If authorized by U.S. political leadership, combined arms support to our submarines might even take the form of U.S. cruise missile strikes against the adversary’s naval and air bases supporting anti-submarine operations. As I’ve noted previously, it must be understood that a U.S. President’s decision-making on this question would be heavily—and perhaps decisively—affected by the escalatory precedents already set by the adversary (regardless of who that might be) in the conflict. 
These forms of external support would not be possible to all U.S. forward submarine operations due to asset availabilities. Nevertheless, air or surface operations could be sequenced or coordinated to support specifically prioritized submarine operations or operational periods.
The adversary’s ability to pose an excessively high threat to U.S./allied air or surface operations within a contested zone’s inner sections would also be a major limiting factor. Special assets such as very low observable aircraft might be needed to conduct attacks in support of submarine operations—or cue attacks by other forces armed with long-range weapons. These penetrating aircraft in turn might need to be supported via submarine-launched land-attack cruise missile strikes against an adversary’s wide-area air surveillance sensors or air defense systems. This is a great example of why mutual support between combat arms is so critical in modern warfare. Even so, it is quite likely that the further forward a submarine operates within a contested zone, the more likely external support (if any is possible) will be indirect.
None of this changes the fact that U.S. submarines will assuredly conduct high-risk independent operations deep within an adversary’s maritime periphery in a notional major war. That’s been a constant from the Second World War, through the Cold War, to today. U.S. direct and indirect support of submarine operations has also been a constant, whether it was inadvertent as in the Second World War or consciously planned for as in the 1980s Maritime Strategy. I’d argue that external combined arms support (as possible and relevant) can have much to offer our submarines in the present and future as well.

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I'll be on hiatus next week. I aim to resume posting the week of August 10th.

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.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Command and Control for Distributed Lethality


LCDR Jimmy Drennan wrote an interesting post at CIMSEC NextWar earlier this month about how the Surface Navy should implement Command and Control (C2) of Surface Action Groups (SAG) within the nascent distributed lethality concept. LCDR Drennan correctly points out that the Composite Warfare Commander organizational structure was designed for carrier battleforces and is inappropriate for (if not unexecutable by) SAGs. He also correctly observes that because voice and data communications between a SAG and a distant higher echelon tactical commander (whether embarked in a carrier or elsewhere) cannot be assured under conditions of cyber-electromagnetic opposition, the SAG must be tactically commanded by an officer embarked in one of its constituent warships. He then suggests that the position of SAG commander should be established as a Major Command billet (e.g., a command tour assigned only after an officer has completed a tour commanding a single warship).  

This assumes a SAG would be a standing distinct group of surface combatants in peacetime—something akin to a ship squadron. If that is the case, then a U.S. Navy SAG that includes DDGs would theoretically be organized around a Destroyer Squadron and its Commodore, and a U.S. Navy SAG that is entirely comprised of LCSs or the future LCS-derived frigate would be organized around a LCS Squadron and its Commodore.
But I’d argue it is highly unlikely that the only U.S. Navy SAGs in a war would—or could—be standing peacetime squadrons of combatants. It boils down to the intersection between desired operational tempo and surface combatant availability.
Sometimes there will be missions in which a full squadron is excessive. At other times the nature of a mission and the breadth of the operating area may require dividing a squadron into several smaller groupings, each with separate tasking, that are then dispersed. There will probably often be missions in which only a handful of surface combatants can be spared to form a SAG because of other pressing demands in theater. In situations like these today during peacetime, the SAG commander defaults to the senior-most ship Commanding Officer in a task group. I would expect this to continue to be the case in wartime.
The implication is that all prospective first-tour Commanding Officers will have to be taught not only how to command their own ship, but also how to command SAGs. The Executive Officers and Department Heads that serve under them will likewise have to be taught how to serve as something akin to a “group staff” for their Commanding Officer when they are the SAG flagship.
There’s an added wrinkle in that the composition of any given SAG in a major war will likely be ad hoc. This will be especially likely the longer a war lasts. Ships will be damaged, whether from battle or wear-and-tear. Some will be lost in battle. Reinforcement ships will arrive from elsewhere in theater, other theaters, or U.S. homeports. Operational tempo will be unremitting. As we learned in the Solomons Campaign of 1942-1943, ship assignments to squadrons or groups will only be permanent in the sense that the demands of the next day—and the number of ships available that can get to sea and fight—will result in frequent short-notice reassignments. Common SAG tactics, techniques, and procedures will be needed Navy-wide so that any given ship will be able to integrate relatively easily into a new grouping.
Even so, this will not be able to fully overcome the challenges of a Commanding Officer and his or her crew having to learn the unique tactical behaviors of the other Commanding Officers and crews in their newly-assigned SAG—not to mention those of the SAG’s commander. Just about every account of the Solomons Campaign I’ve ever read contained the observation that the lack of operational familiarity between group/squadron commanders and their subordinate ship commanders, as well as the lack of operational familiarity between the watchteams of the ships in the group/squadron, was a major impediment to the groups and squadrons achieving their full tactical potential. Nelson had several months in the lead-up Trafalgar to instruct his Captains on his combat thinking, obtain their inputs, and drill them and their crews on how they should fight in accordance with his expressed intentions. Modern war won’t provide SAG commanders and their subordinate Captains that degree of pre-battle training luxury. LCDR Drennan is absolutely correct, then, that ship Commanding Officers in a SAG will need to be granted considerable independent tactical decision-making authority in accordance with the SAG commander’s last promulgated intentions. This will require a great deal of trust between SAG commanders and their subordinate ship Commanding Officers, as well as amongst the Commanding Officers of the SAG’s warships. The same will also be true between the SAG commander and his or her higher-echelon commander.
One final point concerns the facilities a warship must possess to serve as a SAG flagship. If a SAG is to be commanded by the senior-most ship Commanding Officer in the group, then the ship’s communications equipment and its spaces available for operational planning ought to be adequate. If a squadron Commodore is to be embarked to command the SAG, then his or her flagship will need space for the Commodore’s staff. And if several small independent SAGs will be operating under the operational control of a Commodore embarked in one of the ships in one of the SAGs, then that ship may need considerable communications bandwidth.
DDGs can host a Commodore and a small staff, but the fit is extremely tight. Instead of bringing staff officers aboard, it might be worth exploring whether an embarked Commodore might tap a few of the flagship’s Department Heads and Division Officers to serve as his or her planning cell and watchstanding teams. Warfare Tactics Instructor-designated Division Officers might then “fleet up” to temporarily run their departments and stand Tactical Action Officer watches while this is going on. Chief Petty Officers might likewise stand in for the Division Officers serving in other roles. If the Commodore was also a Destroyer or LCS Squadron commander, then his or her dedicated staff might serve elsewhere as a cell planning this or another SAG’s follow-on operations.
It also may be worth exploring whether the space available aboard a LCS or LCS-FF might allow it to host some sort of “C2 Mission Module” that contains staff space, a SAG command center, additional communications equipment, and additional topside communications apertures. I’ve touched on some of the communications capabilities that will be needed for SAG operations under cyber-electromagnetic opposition in the past, and I’ll be returning to the topic in a few weeks.


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.   

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Use of Land-Based Air Defenses to Screen Sea Lines of Communication


I’ve written in the past about the use of land-based air defense systems for pressuring adversary air forces’ wartime ability to fly through a maritime chokepoint. Though these systems would not be able to ‘shut the door’ completely against a capable adversary, they could still help reduce the number of adversary aircraft on the margins that could break through the chokepoint in any given raid. This would be of considerable value to a U.S. campaign to protect the sea lines of communication to its East Asian allies in the event of a war with China, or in some scenarios to protect NATO sea lines of communication within the Eastern Mediterranean in a war with Russia. As John Stillion and Bryan Clark point out in their new CSBA study investigating historical competitions between opposing battle networks, actions that disrupt an adversary’s plans or prevent him from achieving his objectives often generate far greater strategic gains than is possible via a singular focus on attriting the adversary’s forces. The latter is often very important to achieving the former; it just isn’t necessarily the only or the most achievable means to that end.   

It is clear, then, that land-based air defenses can be of considerable indirect value to the screening of friendly shipping. But could they also contribute more directly in that mission? Could they be used to substitute in part for escort combatants? The story’s much more mixed on that front.
The first limiting factor is air search radar coverage. A traditional radar can generally only search within its line of sight. The Earth’s curvature affects this the most; for example, a radar mounted 100 feet above sea level will generally be blind to an aircraft 200 miles away that descends below roughly 17,400 feet. Land terrain along the radar’s line of sight only reduces the searchable volume further; this will constrain where a land-based radar can be placed if seaward coverage is desired. And all this assumes the aircraft’s radar cross section is large enough to allow for detection.
These factors can be overcome somewhat by using a distributed fire control network. In theory, an AEW aircraft that detected an adversary’s aircraft (or cruise missile) could transmit fire control-quality radar data to a friendly land-based air defense system. Should the AEW aircraft and the land-based system use highly directional line-of-sight communications to exchange this data, the adversary would find it extremely difficult to intercept let alone exploit the networking pathway.
Even so, this feeds into the second and far more impactful limiting factor: the interceptor missile range and engagement geometry. Pick any U.S. longer-range surface-to-air missile: its maximum advertised range is generally not too much more than 200 miles or so. But this does not reflect the missile’s actual effective range against a particular target aircraft (or cruise missile) in a given scenario. An engagement geometry involving an interceptor flyout that’s more-or-less tangential to the target’s trajectory would have a much shorter maximum effective range than one in which the intercept is nearly head-on. A geometry in which the interceptor would have to overtake the target would have an even shorter maximum effective range. Even if kinematically possible, engageability opportunity windows might be very short based on the interceptor’s flyout distance at a given geometry. The bottom line is that a land-based surface-to-air missile would not be able to directly screen naval forces or protected shipping in waters outside the missile’s engagement envelopes.   
In theory, then, a land-based air defense system might at best be able to help screen shipping in the terminal approaches to a friendly coast. An adversary probably would not hazard its maritime strike aircraft in these waters if segments of the defender’s sea lines of communication lay outside that coverage. In contrast, the adversary might be very willing to use missile-armed submarines inside these waters. A high-speed anti-ship cruise missile fired by a submarine at a target 60 miles or less away (consistent with an attack from the second convergence zone, if one is available) would be very difficult to intercept unless an air defense system was positioned fairly close to the threat missile’s trajectory. It’s hard to see how a land-based air defense system, even if supported by distributed fire control from an AEW aircraft, could make that kind of intercept.
We can therefore see that direct protection of shipping at sea would depend predominantly upon the screening forces interposed between an adversary’s raiders and their targets. Ideally there would be an outer layer consisting of aircraft and an inner layer consisting of escort combatants. If the waters being traversed by a convoy or other protected shipping were outside the effective range of land-based aircraft, carrier-based aircraft might be usable in their place. If carrier support was unavailable, then area air and anti-ship missile defense would entirely depend upon the availability of Aegis combatants. If there were insufficient Aegis combatants to provide this coverage, then the escorts and their charges would be on their own. 

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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Distributed Lethality is About Far More Than Just Ships Shooting Ships

Much of the public commentary on the Surface Navy’s distributed lethality concept focuses almost exclusively on the offensive anti-surface warfare aspects. It’s true that a large portion of the concept is dedicated towards providing as many surface combatants as possible with modern over-the-horizon anti-ship capabilities in order to increase the threats confronting an adversary's surface operations and correspondingly complicate his surveillance and reconnaissance problems. Indeed, last fall’s launch of a Naval Strike Missile from USS Fort Worth and this January’s demonstration of a Tomahawk Block IV missile in an anti-ship role have been the Navy’s most widely-referenced efforts to date in demonstrating aspects of distributed lethality.

But distributed lethality in the surface fleet is not solely about shooting other ships. Let’s revisit the January ‘15 Proceedings article by VADM Rowden, RADM Gumataotao, and RADM Fanta. In the hypothetical scenario they used to illustrate distributed lethality, a U.S. Surface Action Group (SAG) was assigned offensive anti-surface and anti-submarine tasks during the first phase of an operation to secure an unoccupied island for use as an austere forward airbase. The SAG was further tasked with defeating any adversary attempt to insert ground forces on the island in advance of the arrival of a U.S. Marine force; if any adversary ground forces did manage to get ashore the SAG would no doubt be tasked with pinning them down or destroying them via naval bombardment. Lastly, the SAG was tasked with providing Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) for the U.S. Marine lodgment once it was established. While the aforementioned scenario was likely intended by the authors to illustrate a broad spectrum of tasks a SAG might be assigned in a war, they consistently asserted throughout the article that expanded ASW and land-attack strike capabilities are just as central to distributed lethality as expanded anti-surface capabilities. I would add expanded offensive anti-air capabilities to their list, as a SAG would have to see to its own outer layer defense against an adversary's scout, standoff jammer, and missile-armed strike aircraft during periods of time (or entire operations) in which fighter support from carriers or land-based air forces was limited or unavailable. I would further add that the deeper a future SAG might operate within a contested zone, the more the SAG might need to contend with an adversary's ballistic missiles (whether they are of the land-attack or anti-ship variety).
Distributed lethality, in other words, is really about expanding the surface fleet’s capacity for offensive operations in general. Not every SAG operation would involve ships trying to shoot other ships.
It is conceivable that an adversary might curtail his surface forces’ operations within hotly contested waters outside some distance from his own coast after suffering some painful initial losses. It is also conceivable that the threats posed by both sides’ air, submarine, and land-based missile forces to each other’s surface forces might bound the locations, timing, and durations of where each side operates SAGs. This in turn might drastically reduce the frequency of SAG versus SAG engagements (or prevent them entirely, at least for a time).
U.S. SAGs might find themselves principally performing offensive anti-submarine, anti-air, or land-attack tasks for much of a campaign. U.S. SAGs might just as easily find themselves performing defensive tasks in these warfare areas, not to mention ballistic missile defense, in support of offensive (or even defensive) operations by other friendly forces. Cost-efficient offensive and defensive capability improvements that promote distributed lethality would be crucial for performing each of these tasks.
None of this should be interpreted to mean that providing our surface force with longer-range anti-ship cruise missiles (as well as the requisite over-the-horizon targeting capabilities) is unnecessary. Those specific improvements are desperately needed for restoring the surface Navy’s offensive anti-ship clout—and buttressing its conventional deterrence credibility in turn. They just aren’t the only improvements necessary to make distributed lethality viable across all the missions SAGs would probably be tasked with in a major maritime war.
It’s also worth noting VADM Rowden’s observations earlier this month regarding the two aspects of distributed lethality concept development that require the most analytical attention going forward: how SAG operations will be logistically supported, and how they will be commanded and controlled. CIMSEC has published some great pieces exploring these two critical topics, and I hope others in the naval commentary community will join in as well.
I’d also argue that more analysis needs to be done on the doctrinal relationships between SAGs and land and carrier-based aircraft. It must be understood that, contrary to some commentators’ opinions, SAG distributed lethality is not indicative of the large-deck aircraft carrier’s declining relevance or obsolescence. While there are many circumstances in which a well-outfitted SAG would be able to sustain the margins of temporary localized sea control needed to operate within opposed waters at a tolerable degree of risk without external air support, there are also plenty of circumstances in which even the most powerful SAGs would need help from ‘outer layer’ fighter screens, Airborne Early Warning aircraft, or long-range scout aircraft. Distributed lethality reflects a return to how the Navy envisioned carriers and SAGs working together at the end of the Cold War. What’s needed now is more thought regarding the specifics of how those relationships ought to be doctrinally structured under contemporary conditions, and what that ought to mean to U.S. Navy operating concepts.

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.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Update on Chinese Navy: MLP and Zubr

Most recently, a new amphibious type of ship entered service with Chinese navy that looks to be similar to US’s Mobile Landing Platform. You can see it from the picture below.


As shown int he pictures, the most obvious usage of this ship (Given the number 868) has already been shown in photos where a Zubr class hovercraft boarded it. Based on the current photos, only one Zubr class hovercraft can fit in the platform area although it could also possibly also hold a Type 726 hovercraft (Chinese version of LCAC). PLAN had previously signed contract to purchase 4 Zubrs from Ukraine with 2 produced in Ukraine and the other 2 in China. The 2 from Ukraine were both delivered prior to Russia’s takeover of Crimea, but future dealings for Zubrs will most likely be with the Russians. At the time of purchase, it looked like they could be used in any Taiwan conflict scenarios or any amphibious operations in South China Sea. More blue water amphibious marine expeditions required the Type 071 class. The induction of No. 868 certainly allows more expanded operational scenario for Zubr, but the scale of its usage is really limited by the number of such MLPs that PLAN will likely induct in the future.

This looks to be a vote of confidence for Zubr class in China. I think that China will be building more Zubr with Russian help (especially on propulsions) after the first batch of 4 joins service. This huge commitment for Zubr comes after PLAN had already inducted the smaller Type 726 into service. That would indicate Zubr is bringing some unique capabilities that Type 726 launched from Type 071 simply cannot provide. As with No. 868, we will have to wait to see its other usage cases, since PLAN is unlikely to have ordered such a ship just to carry 1 Zubr around.

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