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CNO: Navy Can Learn From Syria Strikes to Prepare for Higher-End Conflicts

USS Monterey (CG 61) fires a Tomahawk land attack missile April 13, 2018 against land targets in Syria. US Navy Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Navy is studying its recent strikes on Syria to understand how the fleet performed well in a real-world event and how it may need to perform differently in a future higher-end engagement, the chief of naval operations said on Wednesday.

When the Navy participated in the April 13 air strikes on three Syrian targets, it used multiple classes of surface ships and submarines, operating from both U.S. 6th Fleet and U.S. 5th Fleet areas of operations, and in conjunction with joint and international forces. Adm. John Richardson, who spoke at the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual meeting, told USNI News during a question and answer session that “there are a lot of elements of that operation that are going to be those things that we want to continue to stress.”

“Certainly the working partners and allies, the fundamental pillar of the National Defense Strategy. I’ll tell you what: that came together, to do this sophisticated kinetic strike, pretty quickly. So it is sort of a validation of the investment that we’ve been making over decades really with our partners and allies, which include not only exercises and that sort of thing, but also we go to each other’s schools, we form these strategic partnerships so that when fleet commanders call each other up they know each other by first name, they know each other’s families, et cetera et cetera,” the CNO said.

Richardson also praised the interoperability of the U.S., British and French systems involved in the strike, their ability to precisely hit the same targets at the same time, and their ability to deconflict with one another despite launching their strikes from so many locations.

But for all that went right, Richardson noted that a potential high-end fight would be even more challenging for the fleet. The air strike “was by design a surgical operation,” he said, but a future operation may involve additional strikes, sending aircraft or personnel into enemy territory following the initial strike, or other follow-on actions.

“Let’s leverage that success, let’s springboard off that success: rewind the tape from the very first inkling of that operation, cast that in light of great-power, prolonged competition; what would we do different? What would we need? What capabilities would we need to have in place to not only build up and conduct that strike, but then to get back into the fight and conduct the next one, and the next one after that? And do this now under a much more opposed type of scenario. So this is the type of thinking – I love leveraging off of success, and then how would you take that success and make it even more successful in a higher-end, more sustained, prolonged type of scenario.”

In the case of the Syria strikes, Russia did not engage the incoming missiles but Syrian air defense systems were in place and were triggered after the barrage of missiles, the Pentagon stated after the strikes. Though the Syrian airspace is more complex than what U.S. forces have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation is still not as complex as the U.S. would face against potential near-peer or peer adversaries.

Also at the U.S. Naval Institute annual meeting, Richardson noted progress being made on implementing recommendations from last year’s Comprehensive Review and Strategic Readiness Review, both of which followed fatal surface navy collisions that killed 17 sailors. Richardson said about 80-percent of the recommendations would be implemented by the end of Fiscal Year 2018 and that the rest were under discussion.

One of the issues that came up during the CR and SRR efforts was the fact that many ships in the Forward Deployed Naval Forces had been homeported abroad for longer than the Navy’s eight-year preferred length. In fact, USNI News understands that one destroyer, USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54), has been homeported in Japan since 1995. The House Armed Services Committee is looking at language in its Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that would ban ships from being homeported abroad for longer than 10 years, and would require that any ships currently over the 10-year mark be brought home within the next three years.

USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) in 2012. US Navy Photo

At the press briefing earlier in the day, Richardson told USNI News that the Navy had already drafted a plan to bring back its longest-serving FDNF ships even ahead of the CR and SRR, let alone before HASC looked at that legislation. The Navy wants to ensure no ship is forward-deployed for more than eight years, due to challenges doing deep maintenance in Japan.

“It’ll take us some time to transition into that, so that we get on this eight-year cycle, but we’ll do that as briskly as possible,” he said.

CNO’s office later told USNI News that a plan has been written up that looks at how to rotate each individual hull back to the United States and how to replace it in the FDNF. While a few kinks are still being worked out with a few hulls, the plan is nearly complete – so if the HASC language becomes law the Navy could act quickly to comply with the three-year window to bring home all long-serving FDNF ships.

  • Kypros

    I’m no fan of the LCS, but I hope that every single thread doesn’t end up turning into an LCS thread….

    • sferrin

      And you plan to achieve that by making the very first post about LCS? Slow golf clap.

      • Kypros

        No, I was responding to the very first post, which appears to be deleted.

    • Patrick Bechet

      Yeah enough about the LCS! By the way, 8 years is a long time to be tied up alongside a pier, good thing the LCS isn’t based in Japan.

  • D. Jones

    Nice pic of the Wilbur. Really enjoy the Navy pics. DDG’s look good from just about any angle. A sharp ship.

    Not going to mention the LCS either.

  • Duane

    We tend to take it for granted that we and our allies can perform such tightly choreographed attacks without a glitch.

    We shouldn’t.

    It takes a huge amount of institutional learning over years of working together to produce that kind of result. If and when we ever get into a real war with Russia or China, we have a huge advantage – competent and well equipped, trained, and disciplined allies with whom we regularly train and exercise and occasionally go to war with. What do the Chinese have? Kim’s starving conscripts? Russia has what, Syria?

    • sferrin

      “What do the Chinese have? Kim’s starving conscripts? Russia has what, Syria?”

      Clearly you haven’t been paying attention.

      • Duane

        Clearly I have. Name a competent treaty ally of either Russia or China.

        C’mon … if you’ve been “paying attention” you’ll have an instant, credible answer.

        • NavySubNuke

          Pakistan and China are just one example even if they haven’t made public any sort of mutual defense treaty.
          If you had any knowledge of the region and the growing friction between China and Pakistan this would be obvious.

    • Hugh

      Never underestimate a potential adversary. And what don’t we know about them??

      • Duane

        We know exactly who the treaty allies of both Russia and China are … they are Syria and North Korea, respectively, period.

        The Warsaw Pact has been dead for 27 years, with most of its members now part of NATO, all 28 members of which are treaty allies of the USA, and more than 3/4 of which have been participating directly with the US in wars and military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and against both Al Qaeda and ISIS worldwide for the last 17 years, and before that in Iraq and Kuwait in 1990-1991.

        Indeed, several of the former constituent “republics” of the USSR are now either NATO members or are, like Ukraine, clearly in opposition to Russia.

        China has no treaty allies but NK. Indeed, all of China’s immediate neighbors to the east and south – ROK and Japan – are treaty allies of the US … and while we have no treaty with ROC, we clearly are arming and protecting Taiwan from the PRC. Russia is not a treaty ally of China, and is actually China’s biggest military threat throughout history, having gone to war against each other as recently as the late 1960s, and fought proxy wars against each other in Vietnam and Cambodia in the late 1970s.

        Iran is not even a treaty ally of Russia … they are just joyriding on Russia’s coattails in Syria, relying upon Russian air defenses as a shield against Israel … which is likely not going to last much longer.

        These are facts, not opinion.

        • NavySubNuke

          “Indeed, all of China’s immediate neighbors to the east and south – ROK and Japan – are treaty allies of the US”
          You really should look at a map before making statements like this. Neither the ROK nor Japan is “south” of China. Vietnam, Laos, India, and several others are though and not ALL of them are in treaty relationships with the US.
          “Russia is not a treaty ally of China, and is actually China’s biggest military threat throughout history”
          Yes – that is why the Great Wall of China was built on the border with Russia. Oh and that whole World War II thing with Japan – clearly not a big deal to China…..
          Nice try though — do try to at least look at a map next time though.

      • NavySubNuke

        Especially in the age of cyber weapons. Energetic Bear, first disclosed in 2014, pre-emplaced cyber weapons in our power grid. Kind of hard to keep fighting when all the electricity in CONUS turns off….
        Never mind what other new tools they have added to their tool kit we either don’t know about at all or don’t fully grasp the implications of. It is all fun and games until we end up in the first ever modern conflict between peer or even near peer adversaries and the EW spectrum is jammed to no end, the undersea cables linking us to our allies are cut, and cyber weapons are taking out civilian infrastructure thousands of miles “behind” the lines. Never mind what happens if the space war actually goes kinetic….

  • ROb C.

    What exactly is the pressing issue of the Curtis being rotated back to the United States from Japan? Was she not getting her proper upgrades and repairs? Crews have their families in Japan, it pretty harsh to for them to up root yet again. Yokosuka’s US Base’s shipyard is first class facilities.

    • El_Sid

      The USN would appear to disagree “challenges doing deep maintenance in Japan”. And of course there’s no reason why the hull can’t be rotated but the crew stay in place.

  • NavySubNuke

    Russia’s blink – refusing to engage the incoming missiles – is to me a pretty interesting development. Especially since afterward they went public with ridiculous claims about shooting down a large percentage of the missiles. I wonder how much of their decision was to gather data without revealing actual capabilities to us because they are “saving” those in case we every send a strike like this into Kaliningrad or another location they care about enough to protect. A second, and in my opinion less likely but still partially contributing, reason is they (for all of their bluster) likely didn’t want to escalate the conflict by shooting down what was a punitive strike for a chem weapon strike that (again contrary to their public rhetoric) they almost certainly know happen.
    Regardless – what an excellent demonstration of what the US, UK, and France are able to do when we work together. I just hope we learn the lessons without patting ourselves on the back too much since this strike took place in a permissive EW environment from standoff ranges with no actual threat to the launching platforms. Hopefully as we continue to work the planning and actually exercise future strikes like these we are including the impacts of those elements on the force since they are likely to occur should we need to do this in a high end conflict.

    • Mentok The Mindtaker

      I think you’re right, the Russians certainly weren’t about to activate the search and fire control radars of their SAM batteries, knowing full well that every Raven platform in area was chomping at the bit to vacuum up every last last signal emitted for later analysis.

  • ADM64

    In Syria, no one was shooting back. This seems very much like the power projection strikes we’ve been doing for the last 20+ years. Its value as a predictor for high-intensity fleet-on-fleet combat is nil. Anyone who thinks otherwise, or pats themselves on the back for being a bad-ass warrior for participating, is kidding themselves as much as British officers, fresh from the colonial wars, stumbled into WWI against the Germans.

  • Kypros

    Both Russia and Iran had vowed to defend Syria from US attack. Neither did. Either they couldn’t or wouldn’t. I see that as a lesson to the regional players. At this point, it appears that Russian and Iranian interests in Syria diverge enough where Russia will not be bothered by any Israeli strikes in Syria which only target Iranians. It’s gonna get interesting.

  • Ed L

    Not holding my breath, but one of these days there is going to be a ship to ship exchange using OTH missiles and that is going to ruin a lot of people birthdays.

    • NavySubNuke

      True – the more we can learn before hand the better.
      Although it wasn’t a ship to ship action we hopefully captured some good data from the engagements between the rebels in Yemen and the USS MASON.
      Public reports indicate they used at least two SM-2s and an ESSM as well as a Nulka decoy in the attacks against them. (Source “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend From Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack” here on USNI). That kind of real world data is priceless in understanding how the system operates in real world situations.

  • Humungus Humungus

    That chemical attack was fake, and the so called white helmets work for Isis. It’s more Russophobia bull. I am ex Militarry , brigade level NBC specialist. I know a few things about chemical warfare. That nerve gas attack in England was fake, the Skripals would have been dead meat from novichok, none of the areas were decantaminated, or quarantined, if there was real novichok used, there would be a war going on now.