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Navy Planning for Gray-Zone Conflict; Finalizing Distributed Maritime Operations for High-End Fight

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit 5, fast rope from an MH-60S Knight Hawk assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) 12 in 2018. US Navy Photo

THE PENTAGON – The Navy has a good idea of how to fight a high-end war, but how to handle aggression short of conflict will take some more thought.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson released a new strategy document this week that notes a “conceptual challenge” on the lower end of the warfare spectrum. The strategy document is squarely aimed at countering Russia and China – great powers that have engaged in cyber and disinformation campaigns, unsafe intercepts of and interactions with U.S. ships and aircraft, economic aggression towards U.S. allies and partners and other types of “gray zone” activity.

“Primarily our challenge there is ideas – we probably have the capability we need to do creative and productive things in that part of the spectrum, we just need to think a little bit more creatively,” Richardson told USNI News in a Dec. 18 interview, the day after he released his Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0.

Asked if the Navy had any named concept for navigating that gray area between no conflict and aggression short of armed conflict, Richardson pointed to the Dynamic Force Employment concept that guided the actions of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group earlier this year.

“I think that Dynamic Force Employment would be kind of scratching at that. Let’s get out there and operate in a day-to-day manner that is mindful that we’re in a competitive environment,” he said.
“Certainly we don’t want… presence for presence’s sake; we want presence out there to do something specific, so I would say that might be one way to express that.”

On the higher end of warfare, the Navy has a Distributed Maritime Operations concept that has been referenced publicly for more than two years but not discussed in much depth. Richardson’s Design 2.0 makes clear that DMO needs to be finessed and implemented as soon as possible.

Whereas the previous concept, distributed lethality, focused on individual ships, Richardson said DMO focuses on a major fight at the fleet level.

“Our fundamental force element right now in many instances is the carrier strike group. We’re going to scale up so our fundamental force element for fighting is at the fleet level, and the strike groups plug into those numbered fleets. And they will be, the strike groups and the fleet together, will be operating in a distributed maritime operations way,” Richardson said.


The Design 2.0 calls for a “Large Scale Exercise 2020” that will test DMO and its supporting concepts. The Marine Corps has said its Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment and the subordinate Expeditionary Advance Base Operations are in line with DMO and outline the Marines’ role in a massive fleet-wide conflict.

“The Large Scale Exercise is designed to kind of be a big exercise slash experiment to validate how we’re doing against that DMO concept – one, that we’re making progress towards it, because there’s a lot of operational concepts and a lot of technology that has to be fielded to make that real; and then, hey, it’s complicated, we’re not going to get it right on the first try I can guarantee. So we need to go out, run it out, find where we need to improve, what didn’t work out quite exactly as we planned, make some adjustments and keep on moving forward,” Richardson told USNI News.

The Design says that a “comprehensive operational architecture” needs to be designed and implemented to support DMO.

“This architecture will provide accurate, timely, and analyzed information to units, warfighting groups, and fleets,” the document reads.
“The architecture will include: a tactical grid to connect distributed nodes; data storage, processing power, and technology stacks at the nodes; an overarching data strategy; analytic tools such as artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), and services that support fast, sound decisions.”

Richardson told USNI News that, whereas the lower end of warfare is a conceptual challenge for the U.S. but that he was confident the military currently had the gear it needed to succeed in that environment, he said the higher end of the warfare spectrum that might be covered through Distributed Maritime Operations is more of a technological challenge.

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) leads a formation of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 5 ships as U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress aircraft and U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets pass overhead for a photo exercise during Valiant Shield 2018 on Sept. 17. US Navy photo

“At the high end, that’s going to be defined by both concepts and capabilities; but in general we never want to be in a fair fight, so we want to arm our sailors with the absolute best technology in the world, and so that’s why the capability challenge is at that end of the scale,” he said.

Richardson outlined an aggressive set of goals to field new ships, unmanned vehicles in all domains, laser and hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence capabilities and more as soon as possible to help get at that high-end warfare area.

As new technologies and new concepts develop in the coming years, Richardson is laying the groundwork now to ensure they remain complementary to one another. He is standing up a capability development hub called DEVGRUWEST that will fall under U.S. 3rd Fleet and will be principally supported by supported by Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), the Naval Postgraduate School, the Naval Warfare Development Command and each of the type commanders’ warfare development commands. A concept development hub called DEVGRUEAST will also be stood up at U.S. 2nd Fleet and will be supported by the Naval War College, the Naval Warfare Development Command and the warfare development commands.

Overlaid on top of that new learning effort will be the new Director for Warfighting Development (OPNAV N7), a three-star admiral that Richardson said will be in charge of leading the Navy as a learning organization. That position will ensure that the Navy’s schools – the U.S. Naval Academy, the Naval War College, the Naval Postgraduate School among them – as well as wargaming and exercise activities, experimentation of ideas and gear, analysis and studies and more are all aligned.

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson speaking at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. on Sept. 29, 2016. US Navy Photo

“All of that has to be coordinated so that we as an organization, the Navy, can learn as fast as we can. And so the N7 is going to be the conductor of that orchestra of the learning machine that’s the Navy, creating synergy between the exercises, analysis, experimentation, schools, education, and then fleet operation,” Richardson said.
“And so the feedback from the fleet into the learning side of the Navy, the delivery of ideas from the learning side of the Navy to the fleet – all of that is going to be in the purview of the N7.”

The N7 office will be stood up in 2019 and will be focused on testing the Navy’s hypotheses on how to compete and win against great powers.

Richardson did warn that the great power competition may be a lengthy one, and he said the Navy needed to move out quickly on preparing its strategies and its gear for a high-end war – but in a sustainable way.

“Overextension in the short- and long-term – the pursuit of ends that are beyond the ways and means of the force – is self-defeating,” reads the Design.

Asked about that quote, Richardson told USNI News, “this is going to be a long competition. This is not something that’s going to be over in the next five years or maybe even the next 50 years. So we’ve got to think in terms of long-term competition, and if you think about sort of the fundamental elements of strategy, one thing you don’t want to do is get out where your goals, your ends are bigger than your means and your ways. You’ve got to keep those things in balance. So if you’re constantly digging a hole or over-extending yourself, the force just becomes very very brittle. And it does become self-defeating. … So this is just a recognition that this great power competition is going to be a long-term thing, so we’ve got to do things in a sustainable way.”

He said the Navy would still be required to operate at a sustainable pace, surge at times when operational conditions require it, but then take time and build back the readiness that was eaten up during the surge.

“It puts a lot of responsibility on the fleet commanders who are writing orders for those forces to go out and do missions. It puts a lot of responsibility on the type commanders who are generating a lot of that readiness,” he said.
“So the dialogue between those two – type commanders kind of owning the readiness generation part to a degree, and then there’s an advocate for force-generation, readiness generation; and then there’s an advocate for employment – keeping those two in balance, that’s kind of the four-star business these days.”

  • b2

    “high-end war” ?
    Gee, who comes up with language like that? At the end of the Cold War circa 1990 when the USA had the world’s most powerful Navy we would never use double speak like that… Now “obtuse gimmickry” rules. Oh.. and we used to carry and deploy with what CNO would consider tactical nuclear weapons then…

    “gray area”?
    Really CNO? Isn’t that what we’ve been participating in for the past 20 years? We should be good at that stuff… Not strategically oriented towards it.

    We need to go back to basics re Real Sea Power Sir. Sorry, I ain’t buying this program.

  • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

    Undo politically calculated language and you are describing British and French rivalry 17th,18th and 19th centuries. Mahan covered it exquisitely.
    Of particular interest is ATM’s discussion the pressures on the maritime power verses the continental power and the Franco-British rivalry in the Indian Ocean. It reads like a war college paper on US-Sino face off today.
    Details change, but geopolitics, driven by geography, rarely stray very far.

  • Duane

    I would be interested to hear more about this concept of “gray zone” war in a naval environment. That term has been used in recent years to describe what Russia did in Crimea and eastern Ukraine with its “little green man” invaders who wore no Russian army insignia but still fought like regular army troops. I would like to hear how that could work in a naval environment.

    Would this be, for instance, China’s use of its coast guard vessels to harass fishing vessels and perhaps even small patrols of other nations within its claimed “nine dash line” in the South China Sea? If that is what CNO is referring to, then yes, we and our allies need a plan to defeat such bullying short of sinking all the Chinese CG vessels which would likely trigger an all out war.

    • jack anderson

      Kerch Straight might qualify.

      • Duane

        If that involved the US or one of our allies, or restricted access to/through international waters, perhaps. But the Ukraine is not a treaty ally, and the Sea of Azov is 100% territorial waters of Russia and the Ukraine.

        • jack anderson

          all true, would be like the Kuznetsov coming in The Virginia Capes. But my point is that there are flash points all over the place, which ones qualify for USNaval intervention is a political decision.

          • Centaurus

            The Kuznetzov would be ballast long before Virginia.

          • jack anderson

            i don’t think so, we are not at war with Russia and they are entitled to conduct FONOPs

          • Centaurus

            Just wait ’till when Russia tries to move on The Ukraine. They are testing our resolve to even move with a plan. Activity in Syria and Afghanistan don’t reveal a plan, just some spasm of activity to keep a campaign promise.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Wonder what the USN’s “Gray-Zone” plans are for a naval blockade of Taiwan by PLAN, to force that rebellious, bad boy “province” to finally kowtow to mainland China? Do the Chinese have enough ships, subs, planes, missiles, and determination to make it happen? Do we, to counter it?

    • Duane

      Not really sure that a blockade qualifies as gray zone, since naval blockades are universally regarded as acts of war … that’s pretty much “red zone” territory.

      But to answer your question, what would “we” do? … well, one never knows what Trump will do one minute to the next (see, Syria withdrawal by tweet, today).

      But if we had a sane commander in chief who defends the US and our interests, as opposed to defending Putin’s interests, then the US would naturally challenge any attempted blockade and dare the Chinese to shoot at us. That would be entirely in keeping with longstanding US policy, FONOPS, etc.

      • David Oldham

        Trump said being in Syria was not a good idea two years ago, the fact that he acted on it should not surprise anyone other than Trump Dysfunctional Syndrome sufferers like yourself. Doubting Trumps sanity is beyond stupid and just a further consequence of your advanced disease. Seek help, you are stupid.

        • Centaurus

          Everyone sane doubts Carrot Man’s sanity, how’s yours ?

      • Centaurus

        Don’t call it a blockade, call it a “Quarantine”

    • Centaurus

      Not a blockade, call it a quarantine. Like around Cuba ’62.

  • jack anderson

    Bring back the battleships, all those big guns impress the locals and nobody survives bump and scrape with 16 inches of armor plate!

    • Ser Arthur Dayne

      Honestly I think if we had brought back the battleships as soon as President Trump got elected — and let’s say we put $10 billion into them, $2.5 billion per ship — they could probably be sailing right now and let me tell you, people can laugh all they want, those Iowa-class battlewagons and their armor, 16″ guns, 32 Tomahawks, 16 Harpoons, probably plenty of new stuff like ESSM & SeaRAM launchers, perhaps Naval Strike Missiles etc — that is not to be despised … and they would make a huge difference in our “naval political power” etc.

      • jack anderson

        Present day liberals despise “gunboat diplomacy” but it served the British well. And, it is interesting to note that when a battleship showed up off Beirut 35 years ago the locals stopped killing each other after a few tennis court sized holes were excavated with 16 inch rounds

    • Duane

      Yeah, because they were so effective prior to the birth of naval aviation 85 years ago … after which they just turned into big, fat targets housing lots of dead sailors at the very beginning of WW Two.

      • jack anderson

        Actually, a battleship at sea has never succumbed to bombing, Force Z was sunk by aerial torpedos. You might wanna check out some of the old videos of Kamikazes crashing our battleships, not even mission kill, much less sunk.

        • Murray

          Not true. The Italian battleship Roma was sunk by a German glider bomb on September 9, 1943.

          • jack anderson

            Eytey don’t count, poor AAA and even poorer DC!. in all fairness i had forgotten about Fritz and stand corrected.

        • Duane

          Bismarck … taken out by 1920s biplanes.

          • jack anderson

            not even close, a 2 hour bombardment at close range by a fleet of heavy ships failed to put her down, so she was scuttled by her crew.

          • Duane

            The battleships only caught up with the Bismarck because the Brit biplanes knocked out her rudders with torpedoes, so all Bismarck could do was steam in a tight circle, making her an easy peasy target for long range bombardment and torpedo attacks. And no, she was not scuttled, she was sunk by naval gunfire and torpedoes.

            Also, the Yamato, Japan’s biggest battleship, was sunk by US naval aircraft bombing during the Battle of Okinawa. Other Japanese battleships also were sunk by naval bombers at sea.

            During the entire Pacific war, US submarines accounted for 55% of all enemy shipping sunk, aircraft accounted for another 25% of all enemy shipping sunk, especially warships, sea mines accounted for another 10%. All US surface ships combined, including battleships, heavy and light cruisers, destroyers, and lighter warships accounted for a grand total of only 10% of enemy shipping losses for the war.

          • jack anderson

            both Yamato and Musashi succumbed to torpedoes, not bombs, and I am unaware of any aerial torpedoes today.

            Regarding Bismark, you are correct, Stringbag torpedoes jammed her rudders but had not the Home Fleet closed and shelled her the next morning she would have been towed to Brest by tugs.

            And was she sunk by torpedoes from HMS Dorsetshire? Or scuttling charges placed by her crew? The debate continues but nobody says she was sunk by bombs.