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

December 19, 2018 3:24 PM
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.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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