Much Better Now.
This article was originally published by War on the Rocks here.
Superdeployment (n) – a forward Navy deployment resulting in at least nine months away from homeport, with the possibility that the duration could be extended at any moment (including after return to homeport).
In March 2011, USS BATAAN set sail for a nearly 11-month deployment, four months ahead of schedule –the longest Navy deployment in 40 years. In February 2013, two days before the ships were scheduled to set sail, the USS HARRY S. TRUMAN Strike Group’s deployment was delayed until July – eventually deploying for nine months. This may not seem like a big deal, but historically deployments have averaged around six months. These are just two examples of a major trend in U.S. Naval Operations: deployments are getting longer and more unpredictable. The Navy has extended the length of forward deployments over the past decade to adapt to a dynamic geopolitical environment overseas and tightening defense budgets. Hence, the rise of the superdeployment. Maintenance, training, and logistics are just a few areas that are impacted when sending ships on deployments of nine months or more. However, one aspect of this that Navy leaders have not focused on as much is leadership itself.
How should officers, chiefs, and petty officers lead their sailors differently when deployed for nine months or more? As the operations officer on the USS GETTYSBURG, I was with the HARRY S. TRUMAN Strike Group on its recent nine-month deployment. I can tell you deployments of this length are a different animal. I can also tell you I did not see most of the differences until I returned home. I did not always have the compassion, creativity, and endurance I so clearly needed. While top Navy leadership determines how to stabilize our operational tempo, one thing is for sure: Navy leaders need to adapt to the challenge of superdeployments to show their sailors that their struggle is important, that they matter in the grand scheme of national security, and how to keep pressing forward even when stress turns into exhaustion.
First, two realities of superdeployments:
1) Although deployments are getting longer, the average length is still closer to eight months. In fact, United States Fleet Forces Command developed the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) at least in part to cap deployment growth and make eight months the fleet standard. Meanwhile, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jon Greenert has publicly made a commitment to shorten deployments to seven months. The CNO’s commitment to shorter deployments is certainly well-received, but will take some time to implement. Unfortunately, the superdeployment still exists today. Whether responding to Russia invading a neighboring country, or the need to relieve a Strike Group delayed due to emergent repairs, there will always be the possibility that an eight-month deployment gets extended to nine or ten months. Even after sailors return from an eight-month deployment, they must face the reality that their ship may be called upon to re-deploy as a “surge” asset. This is a tried and true strategy in readiness. Generally there is no ship more ready to respond than the ship that has just returned from deployment. Nevertheless, it is a reality that sailors, and leaders of sailors, must handle.
2) Superdeployments are different from land-based deployments in the Army and Marine Corps. Frankly, troops in contact with the enemy face a kind of stress and trauma that most sailors will never know. Furthermore, many soldiers would probably jump at the chance to deploy for only eight months. In 2007, at the height of the Iraq War, the Army extended its standard deployment to 15 months. So, Navy deployments are “easy” compared to longer and more dangerous land based deployments, right? Well, not exactly. It is true that for the past decade the Army has deployed for longer than the Navy, but sailors have no garrison where they can rest and recharge. Sailors at sea are always on duty, interrupted by periodic port visits, usually only about once a month. The Army also sends its soldiers home for two weeks of R&R during 12-month deployments, a model the Navy could very well learn from. Over nine months, the day-to-day stress of deployment builds inevitably. The stress sailors build during superdeployments could be mitigated by sending them home for a short leave period in the middle. Pending any such major changes to the Navy’s personnel policies, it is clear: creative, compassionate, and enduring leadership is required now more than ever to manage the strain of superdeployments.
Compassion: A Little Goes a Long Way
It may sound trite, but when deployments are extended from six months to nine months, things are 50% more likely to happen during deployment. What do I mean by that? Whether at home or on the ship, sailors are more likely to have to deal with significant events, most of which will not warrant the sailor being sent home. If it is a child’s birthday, the sailor wishes she could be there to share in the joy. If it’s a spouse sick with the flu, the sailor wishes he could be there to help her feel better. No matter what it is, it’s harder to handle on deployment than at home.
Compassion may seem to some as the “kinder, gentler Navy” many so frequently lament. Certainly, generational gaps are reflected in Navy leadership styles. Just look at all the debate raging in the blogosphere on Millennials in the military. Instead of railing on the Millennial generation for being too soft, Navy leaders should embrace compassion as an effective means to lead today’s sailors to accomplish the mission and maintain their mental health, all while holding the standards of the U.S. Navy as high as they’ve ever been. Compassion within the force does not make a sailor a less effective warfighter. Quite the contrary. What should a leader do when a sailor finds out, right before assuming the watch, that his fiancée had second thoughts and won’t be waiting for him on the pier when he comes home? Situations like this will inevitably occur on superdeployments. There is no simple answer, but compassionate leadership helps. After all, it is just as likely the leader herself will be faced with a similar challenge.
Naval leadership is, at its heart, all about people. Therefore, ships preparing to go on superdeployments should take appropriate measures. The Wardroom and Chief’s Mess should meet separately to discuss how they will handle the spectrum of personnel issues that will certainly arise. Also, the Command Triad (Commanding Officer, Executive Officer, and Command Master Chief) should be honest with the crew: these types of issues are more likely to arise on superdeployments…and there is help available should you need it! Compassionate leadership is more than acknowledging the immense stress that our sailors are under and helping them find a healthy way to handle that stress. It is also a leadership investment in making sailors and their families a priority. A sailor that is convinced his leaders have his or her families’ best interest in mind will be more inclined to give his command 100% effort and commitment.
Creativity: Leadership Fuel for the Long Haul
Compassion will only get a leader so far on a superdeployment. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the long run, it is far better to be proactive in leading sailors through superdeployments than reactive. Being deployed for nine months or more, it takes exceptional creativity to keep sailors motivated, healthy, and focused on the mission – all of which can be accomplished by showing sailors that they matter in the grand scheme of national security.
Since most Navy deployments support U.S. national strategy through forward presence, deployed ships usually operate in a steady-state, relatively peaceful geopolitical environment. In other words, not much is going on. There is, however, almost always a significant amount of regional tension to add to sailors’ daily stress. So, how do Navy leaders combat the stress-tinged doldrums that creep in over a superdeployment? The answer cannot be simply “focus on the mission.” The key is finding creative ways to keep sailors focused on the mission over nine months or more by showing them a connection between their daily work and the ship’s mission. For example, on GETTYSBURG’s recent deployment, we frequently sent sailors to work with their counterparts on the aircraft carrier. For one, it was a nice change of pace. It also allowed them to see how their work impacted the strike group as a whole.
This can be applied at all levels in the command. From the Commanding Officer to the Work Center Supervisor, leaders need to apply creativity in their leadership approach to keep the daily routine from becoming a “bunch of busy work,” which can easily happen on a superdeployment and is a surefire way to kill sailors’ motivation. By connecting daily work to the ship’s mission, leaders reinforce an intrinsically motivating sense of purpose. Leaders can go further in applying creative leadership by showing sailors the value of their work, informally reviewing progress, and ultimately linking their work and the ship’s mission to national strategy.
Whatever the focus may be, from advancement to warfare qualifications to maintenance, there is a creative way to drive it toward excellence. All it takes is time and energy, both of which are abundant on superdeployments. It also focuses that energy away from the negative aspects of superdeployments, further contributing to sailors’ mental health and, therefore, to combat readiness.
Endurance: Taking Care of Oneself Along the Way
So, if compassionate, creative leadership can keep sailors going on long deployments, what keeps leaders engaged and ready to lead their sailors day in and day out even when they are stressed to the point of exhaustion? It does a sailor, and therefore the Navy, no good if a leader burns out six months into a nine-month deployment. Leaders must balance their own personal health along with their sailors and the mission in order to effectively maintain combat readiness. The old adage “ship, shipmate, self” should not be viewed as an order of priority, but rather as a triad that can only accomplish the mission when it is properly balanced.
Leaders can maintain their personal health in many ways on superdeployments. There is an abundance of studies that have examined the link between physical health and work performance, almost all finding positive correlation. Some leaders may argue that there is not enough time in their busy schedule for exercise, but nine months or more is plenty of time to figure out how to work some physical activity into their daily routine. Physical activity is not the only way for leaders to maintain their personal health. Taking time to read a book, write a letter to home, or have a conversation over a cup of coffee all contribute to a leader’s ability to effectively lead through superdeployments.
Maybe the biggest benefit of enduring leadership is that it is a force multiplier. Sailors see leaders taking care of themselves and staying committed to the mission, and they are motivated and empowered to do the same. Of course, it works both ways. Sailors observe everything their leaders do, so if leaders never take time to manage their personal health then sailors may not either. But when leaders make personal health a priority, the impact is multiplied throughout their sailors. Not only do they give themselves the endurance they need to “make it” through superdeployments, they also create a positive feedback loop.
Compassionate, creative, and enduring leadership is absolutely critical in responding to the challenge of superdeployments. Compassion shows our sailors that their (and their families’) struggle is not taken for granted, fostering an environment of trust and commitment. Creativity enables leaders to keep things “fresh” throughout nine or more months of deployment, and to show our sailors how they fit in the grand scheme of national security. Endurance is the key to completing the mission as leaders on superdeployments. Much like championship-winning quarterbacks that play their best in the fourth quarter, Navy leaders need the energy to finish stronger than they started in the ninth or tenth month of deployment.
The problems the Navy faces will only get worse unless we, as leaders, adapt our leadership approach to extended and unpredictable deployments the same way we have adapted maintenance and training. I’m not saying that suicide, sexual assault, divorce, retention, and other issues are all directly related to longer deployments, but these issues don’t get better for sailors when you turn up the voltage on operational stress and strain. I’m also not saying that simply being better leaders will solve all our problems, but it’s a start. I recognize and applaud the efforts of top Navy leadership to balance operational commitments with force structure. Hopefully, we can put the term ‘superdeployment’ in our history books instead of our current lexicon. However, until operational tempo is stabilized, Navy leaders must confront the reality of superdeployments, adapt to the challenges, and lead our sailors as they deserve to be led.
This article was originally published by the Center for International Maritime Security here.
The first article of this series introduced the “Bad Day Scenario,” reminiscent of a similar scenario the Navy considered in 2003. The Navy went on to test its global responsiveness in the surge exercise Summer Pulse 2004. The scenario posited in Part One involves simultaneous reports of a mine strike in the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, a paramilitary invasion of a Turkish town, and a Chinese attack on a U.S. military aircraft.
The Bad Day Scenario pushes the U.S. Navy, even with its global reach, to the brink of mission failure. Even if none of the three flashpoints boiled over into armed conflict, it is questionable whether today’s Navy could posture to deliver desired effects in a timely manner. There is also no true safe haven to be found in the other military branches or U.S. allies. The preferred military response would probably be a joint operation, but the Navy would likely be called upon to act first, if only to begin moving forces into position. Mobilizing naval forces could provide national leadership with decision space before crossing a strategic “point of no return” while achieving a rapid, politically acceptable result. If the Navy, however, could not position capable forces to respond in a given timeframe, such a response would be decidedly less feasible to political leadership.
Nor could the Navy rely on U.S. allies to save the day. First, prudent planning dictates that in a worst case scenario analysis, one should not assume the benefit of allies coming to their aid. Second, although unlikely, unilateral U.S. operations are entirely feasible. American presidents have routinely reserved the right to act unilaterally to preserve vital interests. Meanwhile, NATO is a shell of the military force that once served as a counterbalance to Russian aggression, and much of Europe is preoccupied witheconomic and domestic issues. Even if European allies could muster the political will to assist in Turkey, it is unreasonable to assume they would have the capacity to support in the Bab el Mandeb simultaneously. In the Pacific, it is possible U.S. allies would view the downed aircraft as strictly a U.S.-China issue. There could also be murky questions as to the flight profile of the aircraft relative to China’s contentious claims of territorial airspace. However, U.S. allies in the region are far more likely to come to the aid of the U.S. over issues that impact their sovereignty or economy, such as China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea.
Faced with the specter of having to go it alone, the Navy could capitalize on two emerging concepts to tackle the Bad Day Scenario: Dynamic Force Employment (DFE) and Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO). Both concepts have the potential to improve the Navy’s global responsiveness. Integrating DFE and DMO into actual operations and doctrine creates both intriguing challenges and opportunities for the Navy of the future.
Dynamic Force Employment
Introduced in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, DFE is a concept for employing forces on a global scale in an agile and unpredictable manner. DFE has a significant impact on the Navy by shifting carrier strike group (CSG) deployments away from the routine, almost clockwork, schedules that supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades, and toward a demand-based methodology that could involve shorter or more irregularly spaced deployments to any number of locations based on current events. Among the many changes that DFE will bring, it will immediately impact the advanced training portion of the readiness cycle – ships and strike groups will no longer be able to focus on a predetermined set of threats based on geographic area.
DFE essentially addresses the timeliness aspect of the Bad Day Scenario. It is designed to maximize the probability that forces will be available to respond to global crises and contingencies. It sacrifices presence for responsiveness and agility.
Forward staging forces around the world on rotational deployments provide presence, but this approach has gradually degraded force readiness over the past two decades. In addition, there’s no guarantee forces are deployed where the next crisis will ignite, and it may take just as long for them to reposition as it would for them to deploy from CONUS. Instead, DFE uses responsive deployments. Forces deploy when and where they are needed, and when deployed, they can extend their presence on demand and far more easily than a unit coming off a long deployment.
The value of DFE’s agility is highlighted in the Bad Day Scenario. Under the traditional force employment paradigm, an east coast-based CSG would typically deploy to the Arabian Gulf. From there, it would take nearly as long to respond to the Turkey incident as a CSG in homeport, plus the time, risk, and resources incurred by transiting a potentially mined chokepoint in the Bab el Mandeb Strait or even the Suez Canal. DFE eliminates the “default” deployment to the Arabian Gulf, and increases the likelihood of east coast-based forces being allocated to the European region (6thFleet), poised to respond to the Russian aggression in Turkey. Forces in the Middle East (5th Fleet) would be preferable to CONUS-based forces to respond to the mine strike in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. However, the unique defensive and force protection challenges of the region (e.g. anti-ship cruise missiles, explosive boats, lethal unmanned aerial vehicles) require capabilities that 5thFleet’s assigned mine countermeasure forces do not possess. As the Navy’s Director of Expeditionary Warfare points out, having the wrong capabilities available is the same as having zero availability. Critical enablers such as Aegis cruisers and destroyers may need to deploy from CONUS after all. DFE forces the Navy to prepare for the possibility of having to rapidly deploy such a package for unique missions like mine clearance, potentially resulting in improved global responsiveness.
Lastly, DFE is ideally suited for the return to an era of great power competition by presenting unpredictability to potential adversaries, such as Russia and China. To be clear, DFE is in some respects a necessary outcome of budget restrictions and the end of nonstop naval air support to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, it is heartening to see DoD make a strategic transition so deftly. Instead of shifting default rotational CSG deployments from one area of responsibility (AOR) to another, DoD rewrote the game plan, simultaneously forcing potential adversaries to wonder where U.S. forces will show up next, while also creating operational tempo “breathing room” to help reset the force.
As Tyson Wetzel points out on the Strategy Bridge, there are some potential challenges to DFE becoming an effective force management system. Some Combatant Commanders (COCOMs) could view DFE as a threat to force allocations in their AOR since they have long been accustomed to continuous naval presence. Allies may view irregular deployments as a sign of waning U.S. commitment to their strategic partnerships. Above all else, DFE will remain constrained by overall end strength. No matter how dynamic the Navy is, it is ultimately only as responsive as the number of ships it has operationally available.
Distributed Maritime Operations
One way to overcome the limitations of end strength is to rethink how U.S. naval forces operate once deployed. This is, in part, the logic behind distributed maritime operations (DMO), the successor to Commander, Naval Surface Force’s distributed lethality concept. While a universally accepted definition of DMO does not exist, DMO emphasizes multi-domain maneuver and kill chain agility through incorporating lethality into more platforms, offboard sensors, network-optional C2 (i.e. a blend of mission command and networked operations), and unmanned systems, to name a few. It is an operational concept that guides the Navy toward fielding a force capable of applying efficient, tailored force packages to a wide range of potential missions and threats. To some, it represents a significant departure from the near-myopic focus on power projection ashore via high-end capabilities, such as CSG sorties and ship-launched cruise missile strikes to support land-based operations.
If DFE addresses the temporal aspect of the Bad Day Scenario, DMO addresses the spatial and doctrinal aspects. DMO, in concept, would allow the Navy to respond to multiple contingencies in different regions by operating in a distributed manner. Although the Navy has been slow to adopt DMO (due in part to “organizational inertia” associated with the preeminence of CSG operations), deployed CSGs, amphibious readiness groups (ARGs), and destroyer squadrons (DESRONs) are already accustomed to operating disaggregated units, sometimes even across COCOM AOR boundaries. DMO will theoretically take disaggregated operations to the next level. DMO will allow units to disaggregate and then effectively integrate with other distributed units to produce tailored force packages on demand as the situation dictates.
Specific to the Bad Day Scenario, DMO could improve the Navy’s responsiveness in multiple ways. A group or squadron operating in the Mediterranean or Red Sea could rapidly disaggregate to respond to both the Turkey and the Bab el Mandeb crises. And by building lethality into all platforms, there is a greater likelihood the Navy could respond to any of the incidents with the nearest available assets. With the current force, some otherwise capable platforms, such as the San Antonio-class LPDs, could not respond to the South China Sea incident due to a lack of integrated air and missile defense capability. Offboard sensors and unmanned systems are particularly useful in mine threat areas, which create greater standoff ranges in relatively small littoral areas such as the Bab el Mandeb Strait. DMO can integrate lower-end surface platforms with these capabilities, allowing them to conduct missions such as mine warfare without incurring undue risk or having to wait for the minesweepers to arrive.
While DFE has been rapidly implemented, DMO (and distributed lethality before it) has lingered on the Navy’s operational “whiteboard,” with many supportive ideas and unique definitions coming from across the Navy enterprise. The implementation of DFE benefited from top-down Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) guidance, whereas DMO, on the other hand, began with the Surface Force and had to gain acceptance from the broader Navy and Joint Force from the “bottom up” (or at least from a few steps down). DFE was received as a mandate from SECDEF, whereas DMO has to be sold as a valuable concept, which necessarily takes longer. The lack of a unifying guidance document may have contributed to the delay in widespread acceptance. In order to facilitate implementation, the Navy should prioritize publishing a Naval Warfare or Doctrine Publication (NWP/NDP) on DMO as soon as possible.
The Convergence of DMO and DFE
The advent of DFE, coming from the Joint Force, and DMO, being developed from within, create unique challenges and opportunities for the Navy’s global responsiveness going forward. Ignoring the necessary integration of the two concepts and addressing them in a vacuum could lead to sub-optimal implementation of both concepts, or an unnecessary rejection of one concept in favor of the other. (Likely DMO would be the one to suffer, given SECDEF’s endorsement and rapid implementation of DFE.) Instead, the Navy needs to analyze how DFE and DMO will coexist to maximize maritime warfighting effectiveness. With that comes several key implications which will be addressed in detail in Part 3 of this series.
This post originally appeared on the U.S. Naval Institute blog here.
When it comes to shipbuilding, we in the surface force are really bad customers. We are like the guy at the Starbucks counter that hems and haws over all the seasonal varieties until the barista finally says “would you like the same grande-triple-soy-nonfat-mocha-latte-no-whip that you’ve ordered the past 1,347 times?” “Oooh, yeah that sounds good, I’ll have that!”
It’s not that we don’t like other delicious beverages (i.e. ships), we just have no idea how to tell the barista (i.e. industry) what we’re looking for so she can make it. Over three decades we have consistently struggled to articulate an operational concept—to tell a story—that describes an employment model for surface combatants not based in Cold War tactics. All we really know is the high-end multimission surface combatant designed to defend an aircraft carrier—the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (the Ticonderoga-class cruiser before her sprouted from the same Cold War Aegis roots). Last year, we acknowledged the Arleigh Burke’s frame is maxed out, but from an operational employment perspective, we keep trying to fit every new ship into the Burke mold.
Littoral combat ship? Look, I’m not going to pile on. I’ll just say that the root of the problem with LCS was our inability to describe what we wanted to do with the ship because we couldn’t figure out how the modular concept fit into our carrier strike group-centric paradigm. Well, at least they can replace the minesweeper fleet, right? More than a decade after commissioning the lead ship, we’re still waiting to receive fully operational mission packages. Still, this is not a knock on the LCS program itself. There is ton of value that can still be gleaned from these ships, and many missions they could do, none of which involve defending an aircraft carrier. The LCS saga is like vaguely describing a new kind of coffee that always tastes like whatever you’re in the mood for, then watching the Starbucks baristas struggle for the next 20 years trying to figure out how to make it.
At least there’s the Zumwalt-class destroyer, right? <massages temples and counts to ten> Ok, I’m not maligning the program for scoping down the buy to three hulls. Budgetary constraints are real. There’s a lot to be learned from the technology on these ships that we can apply to future designs. But, again, here we are struggling to figure out how to use these technological marvels. I applaud the Navy for experimenting with surface development squadrons to refine Zumwalt’s mission, but next time let’s do that before we spend $23 billion.
And that brings me to my favorite ship of the moment, the next generation frigate, or FFG(X). We reduced the cost to $800 million per ship. Yaaaayyy! I’m going on the record: in the end this will be a billion dollar warship (and I’m not talking about lead ship cost, I mean average unit cost). While we cut costs in design, we added requirements. Here we go again! What was meant to be a cutting-edge ship-killer is now beginning to look like a mini-Arleigh Burke. We’re doubling vertical launching system (VLS) cells to 32, none of which can be used to fire the Navy’s chosen next-generation antiship missile, the Naval Strike Missile (NSM). More torpedo tubes, more electronic warfare, electric drive, lasers, cooperative engagement capability (CEC), and naval integrated fire control-counter air (NIFC-CA). These all are grand, but are they adding to the ship’s mission to destroy enemy ships? Or are they added on by Navy leaders for fear that the ship might one day encounter a situation for which it is ill-suited? Surely, we can build a ship that is ready to take on any mission, anywhere, anytime, independently, right? Ah, yes, the Arleigh Burke. Meanwhile, the FFG(X) will get eight tubes for NSM. Our competitors have speedboats with as much antiship capability. And lots more of them.
What about the amphibious navy, you say? Oh, you mean the one that all my mentors told me to avoid like the plague if I wanted to be competitive for promotion and command at sea? I’ve got no bone to pick with the San Antonio-class LPD, and I’m heartened to see experimentation with littoral combat groups, but we’ve been talking about influence squadrons for years now. Besides, the more we ask for, the more the LPDs start to smell like Arleigh Burkes!
Ladies and gentlemen, we know what we want. We have intelligently designed concepts—Dynamic Force Employment (DFE) and Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO)—that effectively balance the constraints of today while meeting the potential demands of the future. Command of the sea will belong to the best designed fleets, not the best designed ships. Key to these concepts will be “low-end” (in other words, less than $1 billion) ships that are VERY good at conducting a couple missions, not billion-dollar ships that are pretty good at conducting every mission. The missile truck is a good start. We just need to tell the shipbuilders!
Industry is, of course, incentivized to “super-size” our order. It’s much more profitable to sell us high-end, exquisite solutions because they know there’s a good chance we’ll downscope the overall buy. Shipbuilders carry massive overhead to survive the arduous DoD acquisition system. It’s in their interest to sell us the “death star.” Or, at Starbucks, the trenta-double-shot-unicorn Frappuccino. Let’s order what we really want. We’re SWOs. Give us a damn cup of sweet black gold!
This article was originally published by the Center for International Maritime Security here.
Using a television to watch TV is so 20th Century. Screens can do much more these days. The civilian sector is proving that and the Navy needs to take heed. Specifically, the Navy should use electronic displays in new and innovative ways to communicate among its deployed forces, confuse potential enemies, and even disguise its ships and shore facilities. It is not often that one talks about screens as innovative since the television has been commercially available for almost a century, but display technologies have advanced so dramatically since the early days of television that they can now be used cost-effectively for entirely new purposes. Considering the ever tightening budgets looming in the Navy’s future, it would do well to invest in proven technology, like the digital electronic display, and generate operational advantage through creative employment. What if an aircraft carrier could change its hull number at will? Or if a strike group could communicate at high data rates without transmitting a signal? Imagine a warship being able to sail right through an enemy fleet in broad daylight by simulating the appearance of a merchant vessel. These ideas may seem like science fiction, but they are all possible through the use of technologies that are used by millions every day.
Digital electronic display technologies, such as light emitting diode (LED), liquid crystal display (LCD), plasma, and digital projection, have advanced and proliferated rapidly in recent years. This has caused unit cost to decrease and quality and capability to increase. These technologies are no longer just for watching television or working on a computer. Massive LED screens are common on digital billboards, while nearly half of all Americans carry high resolution displays in their pockets in the form of smartphones. Displays are even beginning to break out of their traditional rectangular shape. LEDs can now be manufactured so that panels can be flexibly conformed to curved or irregular surfaces. Projection mapping techniques enable projectors to display images on three dimensional surfaces. All of these technologies have the potential to revolutionize the way the Navy operates for pennies on the dollar.
Consider the island superstructure on an aircraft carrier. Large white painted hull numbers take up about a quarter of the inboard and outboard faces of the island. They serve one purpose: identify the ship in order to comply with international regulations. The numbers are lined with dozens of light bulbs which can either be turned on or off. Aside from ceremonial ambience, it is difficult to see what value they provide.
If the lights and the painted numbers were replaced with digital displays, the Commanding Officer of the carrier would have several new options at his or her disposal. For one, the screens could be set to display any hull number or none at all. Obviously, removing or changing hull numbers would not hide the ship, but against a capable and professional enemy it might confuse their decision making process enough to delay or deter an attack. As an example, the US Navy today requires significant confirmation, often visual, to establish and maintain maritime domain awareness (MDA). If the same ship were to be reported in three different locations, mission effectiveness would suffer while watchstanders tried to sort out the discrepancy. Conflicting reports are like poison to a networked force. Even if the superstructure screens were blank, the CO may find advantage in denying the enemy useful intelligence. In World War II, the Pacific Fleet removed visible numbers from aircraft carriers and did not return them until the Japanese were no longer a threat.
An island superstructure screen could also be used as a visual aid for flight deck operations. The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is an extremely loud and dangerous work environment. It is often difficult for crews to hear anything but jet noise. Visual messages could supplement audible alarms to indicate emergencies, not only grabbing attention but also relaying critical information. Conversely, an outboard screen could aid in force protection efforts, particularly in precarious situations like anchoring in popular foreign ports. If a wayward sightseer saw his leisure craft on the screen with the word “STOP” written in several different languages, the message would be received loud and clear.
Digital displays can also be a cost-effective means of communicating messages over long distances. In an effort to move the Navy away from highly detectable radio communications, optical communication techniques are gaining attention, but they often rely on technologies such as laser, which require more research and development (R&D) investment. Digital displays offer the possibility of optical communications without any R&D required. For example, a popular manufacturing and advertising concept called a quick reaction (QR) code uses a matrix of black and white squares to store data, which can be read by a camera on a smartphone or other computing device. When large digital displays (such as the aforementioned “superstructure screen”) are coupled with high resolution digital cameras (another readily available technology), ships within sight of each other could communicate optically, much like age old flashing light or semaphore techniques, but with much higher data rates.
Since the interpretation of QR codes is automated, data rate is only limited by a computer’s ability to process each new code. Data rate, fidelity, and communications range will only increase as display and camera technologies improve. This concept could easily be applied to satellite communications, as shown above. Communication would depend heavily upon adequate visibility, but this “digital semaphore” technique could offer a cost-effective method of optical communication while recapitalizing some of the capabilities lost by the disestablishment of the Signalman rating in 2003.
Perhaps the most ambitious use of digital display technologies would be to disguise an entire ship. Much like “digital semaphore” could revolutionize optical communications at sea, the digital version of deceptive lighting could revolutionize naval deception. Deceptive lighting is a standard technique used by US Navy ships to conceal their identity at night by changing their normal lighting configurations. The effectiveness of deceptive lighting is debatable and, in any case, it offers no cover from the enemy when the sun rises. Digital displays could be used in daylight hours to complete the deception. Research into this concept, called active camouflage, is well underway. In fact, in 2011 BAE released an active camouflage for tanks called Adaptiv© that works in the infrared, not visible, portion of the spectrum.
The visible version is not far off. In March 2012, Mercedes Benz made one of their new vehicles nearly invisible by covering it with flexible LED panels that displayed images from a camera on the other side of the vehicle. The aim of active camouflage in naval applications would not be to make a warship invisible, but rather to appear as a different kind of ship not worthy of the enemy’s attention. Displaying a false hull form instead of trying to make the ship invisible actually could reduce some technical challenges of active camouflage, such as the requirement to know the viewer’s look angle in advance. Furthermore, a warship has several other signatures, such as radar return and visible wake, which are impossible to eliminate completely.
Although the technology still needs to mature in order to be feasible for use on ships at sea, the concept is simple (indeed BAE is already working hard to apply Adaptiv to warships at sea). A ship’s freeboard and superstructure could be covered in conformal LED paneling to display an image of a merchant or some other vessel, provided it is not protected by international treaties like a hospital ship.
Naval active camouflage would be intended to fool routine enemy surveillance from near-horizon distance, not ships in close contact or aircraft conducting targeted search efforts. However, in combination with emissions control (EMCON) and careful maneuver (i.e. staying within shipping lanes and avoiding close approaches to enemy assets), the appearance of a merchant vessel on the horizon would fit the enemy’s expectations and cause him to focus his surveillance efforts elsewhere. Another potential use of naval active camouflage can be found in a historical example. In World Wars I and II, the Allies took inspiration from the art world and painted their ships with irregular patterns of contrasting geometric shapes, called dazzle camouflage, to confuse enemy rangefinders, particularly on submarines. Dazzle camouflage fell out of favor with the advent of radar, but today the digital version could prove valuable, particularly against low end threats. Without advanced fire control radars, terrorists and pirates rely on their vision to target or avoid naval warships, depending on their particular goals. Even without disguising identity, creative use of adaptive camouflage could make it nearly impossible for a threat to determine a warship’s true aspect, just like dazzle camouflage, and consequently, how to engage or maneuver effectively.
Using display technologies to make warships appear as something else is not a completely new concept for the modern US Navy. In September 2011 as part of the 5th Annual Midway American Patriot Awards gala, the island superstructure of the USS Midway was transformed into a waving American flag using a different kind of display technology called projection mapping. AV Concepts, Inc. used 3D projectors, advanced graphics software, and creative lighting techniques to virtually “paint” the flag onto the ship with stunning clarity and realism.
While not an ideal technology for afloat forces, projection mapping could be used to fool optical sensors by blending shore facilities into their surroundings. Again, history provides an intriguing parallel. After the 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor, Lockheed Martin desperately needed to hide its Burbank, CA aircraft plant from Japanese fighters. With the help of nearby Walt Disney Studios, they used canvas, paint, and chicken wire to cover the massive industrial facility with scenery of a quiet rural community. By employing a little artistic creativity, the Burbank plant was able to continue operations throughout the war. Blending this type of creativity with modern display technology could provide cover against today’s more advanced optical sensors.
The decreasing cost and increasing performance trends of proven display technologies offer the Navy a cost-effective way to generate revolutionary capabilities. Emerging technologies, such as electronic paper (e.g. E Ink® on Amazon’s Kindle®) and phased array optics (think “the Holodeck from Star Trek”), promise to bring even more capabilities into the fold. Certainly, there will be challenges like increased maintenance requirements that must be considered to determine operational feasibility. Also, enemies will undoubtedly adapt to the capabilities described here, but simply affecting an enemy’s operations can have real value. Still, all of these capabilities are useless if the Navy does not have operational concepts for them. Without imagination and an innovative mix of art and science, the Navy will miss this opportunity to increase its combat power and, instead, give potential enemies a few more ways to bring parity to the world’s oceans.
 Unfortunately, the term “digital camouflage” is already in use to describe patterns on uniforms.
 The technology behind phased array optics is still several decades from reaching maturity.
This post was originally published by the Center for International Maritime Security here.
At 0830 Monday morning “BREAKING NEWS” banners start flooding cable news broadcasts, home pages, and Twitter feeds, but the headlines are not all telling the same story. One network reports a British-flagged crude oil tanker suffered a catastrophic explosion in the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, the critical chokepoint just south of Yemen through which nearly all maritime commerce flows between the Middle East and the Western World. Initial reports point to a naval mine strike. Separately, various websites are reporting heavily armed military vehicles and masked troops with no flags storming an Eastern Turkish town. Meanwhile, Twitter is erupting with the hashtag #WarWithChina after Chinese military officials claimed responsibility for the downing of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane in the South China Sea, saying the aircraft had violated its territorial airspace.
As the U.S. military’s top brass gathers around a conference table in the Pentagon a question is being muttered around the room before the Secretary of Defense steps in. It’s the same question many are probably asking themselves at home in their living rooms and kitchens: “Can this really be happening?”
Thankfully this is a purely hypothetical “Bad Day,” but who can say that some nightmare scenario like the one described above will not occur someday? Similar events have independently taken place in the past and conditions exist today for history to repeat itself. In fact, the multitude of regional conflicts affecting the U.S. and its allies today makes it more likely that multiple trigger events will occur near simultaneously. Not through some coordinated, multi-pronged attack from an Axis of Evil, but rather because America has so many potential adversaries and they don’t tend to de-conflict their calendars. As threats to U.S. national security and interests continue to proliferate, the Bad Day Scenario described above becomes increasingly likely.
As one might expect, this is not the first attempt to consider the implications of a worst case scenario for the Navy. In his article “The Hunt for a Small Surface Combatant,” Dr. Norman Friedman described a Navy briefing entitled “A Bad Day in 2003” which examined multiple independent crises in the wake of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As in today’s scenario, one obvious answer was the Navy needed more ships. Back in 2003, the focus was on the new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) with its high speed, modular, and (supposedly) low-cost design. But the focus today should be on fleet design, not ship design. No matter how you cut it, the Bad Day Scenario would be difficult to address for even the most advanced navy in history. A solution will not be found simply in fielding a new type of ship or by building more ships.
This series will consider the Bad Day Scenario, how the Navy could respond to such a challenge today, and what steps it could take to be better postured to respond in the future. Examining emerging technologies and operational concepts to respond to such a scenario reveals opportunities to make the U.S. Navy even more capable and lethal in the future. These insights could be applied every day, not just in times of crisis, making more common scenarios all the more manageable.
If the Navy had to Fight Tonight
If we woke up to the Bad Day Scenario one day the first challenge would be to verify the accuracy of the news reports. Even if the U.S. Government had its own intelligence to corroborate, would the events merit a military response? Against whom? If the decision were made to utilize military power, employing the Navy would be an ideal response . The wheels could be set in motion quickly, but leaders would still retain decision space if a non-military solution could be achieved. Still, setting the wheels in motion would not be easy. Under the Navy’s traditional force structure and operational patterns, responding to the Bad Day Scenario would involve complex, improvised planning and re-coordination, incurring great cost and risk to current and planned operations.
As multiple independent crises break out could the Navy deploy or reposition these assets to several separate regions at the drop of a hat? Possibly, but it would involve more than a little luck. The trigger events suggested above occurred in three different military theaters – the oil tanker struck by a mine in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR), the attack on the Turkish town in the European Command (EUCOM) AOR, and the downed aircraft in the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) AOR. One should look at how the Navy might respond to the Bad Day Scenario if it had to use the assets it has today or, as many military commanders like to say, “fight tonight.” The Navy would likely default to applying its premier force packages – Carrier Strike Groups (CSG), Amphibious Readiness Groups (ARG), Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs) and fast attack and guided missile submarines (SSN / SSGN) – to the maximum extent possible. A deployed CSG or ARG would often have to be in the right place at the right time. Forces in port would need to be in the right phase of the training and maintenance cycles in order to be primed for a surge.
The Pacific Fleet would clearly respond to Chinese aggression with its assigned CSG, but even if PACFLT could spare a CSG for CENTCOM or EUCOM it could take days to weeks to respond simply due to distance. After 9/11, the Navy began continuously deploying at least one CSG to CENTCOM, and occasionally two during times of heavy tension. But times have now changed. In 2015, for the first time in eight years the Navy suffered a gap in its CSG presence in the CENTCOM AOR, citing a strain on resources. With the advent of Dynamic Force Employment, an innovative but nascent approach to more agile deployments, it will soon be more noteworthy for a CSG to be stationed in the Middle East than not. Even with Dynamic Force Employment it stands to reason the Navy would still fall back on a more traditional deployment model.
Even if we assume CENTCOM has a CSG at its disposal, could it respond to the incident in Turkey, a NATO ally whom the U.S. is sworn to aid through a mutual defense agreement? Intelligence reports and common sense could point to Russia as the faceless aggressor, and there are almost always Russian naval forces operating in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Yet, if the U.S. decides to shift the CSG to the EUCOM AOR to deal with the higher-end threat, the carrier and her escorts still have to get through the Strait of Bab el Mandeb. The latest reports indicate the tanker that exploded in the strait was struck by a floating mine, and Houthi rebels in Yemen have already proclaimed their ability to close the strait. The risk to a CSG could be unacceptable. While the Navy is deciding how to hold a Russian naval force at risk until a second CSG can surge deploy from the East Coast (days? weeks? months later?), the international community is clamoring for the U.S. and its allies to clear the strait so vital commerce can continue unmolested. As national leadership tries to balance these concerns, the limits that stem from force structure and potential combat operations would shape options for employing the Navy.
A New Navy Ready for Surprise
No doubt the Navy would eventually respond to the Bad Day Scenario with today’s force structure, but it could incur significant cost in terms of money, time, relationships, and strategic objectives. The Bad Day Scenario would be difficult for today’s Navy to address, but emerging trends in technology, management, and operational concepts can present a new option for the Navy: a disaggregated, lethal, and resilient fighting force that can turn a bad day into an unparalleled triumph.
This post originally appeared on the U.S. Naval Institute Blog here.
A couple of months ago, I fired off a satirical response to what I perceived as unhelpful generational criticism. When the editors at the Naval Institute asked me if I wanted to use a pen name, at first, I said “no,” but then I balked. After all, I was throwing snarky literary haymakers at the CNO on down. So, the Salty Millennial was born. From the beginning, this was always about more than satire. This was about engaging millennials and tapping into their talent.
So, here it is. No longer anonymous. Anti-climactic, I know. I am a post-department head O-4 and I am in fact a millennial, at least by some definitions. In the next few years, my peers, millennials will be taking command of your destroyers, aircraft squadrons, and fast attack subs. Get ready.
Why Start Anonymous?
Well, why does anyone write under a pseudonym? Its not all about fear of reprisal, although that plays a part. It’s also about engaging more deeply. Without my name and rank, you couldn’t immediately discount what I had to say. Whether good or bad, anonymity and pseudonyms grab our attention. “Col. Ned Stark’s” success over at War on the Rocks is a prime example of the power of a pseudonym in breaking through the noise of DoD punditry. The editors prefaced the first article with an explanation that they decided to publish the anonymous piece “because the author’s career—even beyond the author’s time in the Air Force—would be at serious risk even though this article does not involve any violations of regulation or law as far as we have been able to discern.” Fortunately, the Navy is much more understanding. <nervously tugs at collar>
And yet, no matter what I feared, or how much I wanted your attention, it came down to accountability for me. As an U.S. service member, I must stand behind what I write. I’m not “throwing shade” on Col. Ned Stark or any of our favorite anonymous critics. There is real value in the function they serve. I just think they’re missing the full impact their message could deliver. I would love to see Col. Ned Stark reveal his or her real name, regardless of what offers they’ve received from Air Force leadership. Remaining anonymous, in Ned’s case, perpetuates the idea that we should fear the consequences of speaking our mind. Maybe there will be blowback. So what? No truly meaningful change was ever achieved with 100% consensus, or without a few missteps along the way. We need to practice what we preach. Be accountable. If you believe in something, stand up for it. Damn the consequences.
Some may criticize this “revealing” as self-aggrandizing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in the merits of anonymous ideas. The Delphi Method is a great example. Anonymous ideas are one thing, but anonymous criticism is something else entirely. Its easy to brush off anonymous criticism. If I ever hoped to achieve anything constructive with my criticism, I needed to put name behind it.
I’ll reiterate my criticisms from previous posts so there’s no confusion:
- Generational “warfare” is unproductive. We should avoid the extremes of either forcing younger generations to conform to the sailor mold we expect or sacrificing our entire culture to tailor to the new(er) masses. We should critically analyze which of our traditions exemplify our core values, and then strive to understand how we can pass them on to a generation that, frankly, communicates much differently than many of us are used to.
- Our personnel management system does not incentivize our sailors and officers to perform at their highest levels. Yes, using a 20-year-old piece of boutique software to create performance reports is a bit absurd, but ultimately it is only symptomatic of a system badly in need of reform. Col. Ned Stark makes many good points that we could apply in the Navy, and to be fair, OPNAV N1 is hard at work implementing guidance from the 2019 NDAA and their internal transformation for Sailor 2025. Nevertheless, I believe we need to push further and develop a system that rewards our top performers with early promotion, more choice, less rigid milestones, and financial incentives. While some of this will require true congressional reform, not all of it does, and if the Navy could successfully lobby Congress for the 2019 NDAA authorities, it can lobby again for more changes next year.
- Our wounded veterans and service members deserve the best care that medical science can provide. Its time to be open to the idea that cannabinoids are a much less addictive alternative to opioids, and then let research prove or disprove that idea. We mustn’t let cultural stigmas inhibit the treatment of those who have sacrificed for this nation.
- On paper, we have an excellent grasp on effective leadership. In practice, we focus way too much on near-term results at the expense of the long-term health and wellness of the force. I believe this stems from our attitude of “ship, shipmate, self” which teaches us that the wellness of our shipmates, and our own wellness, are separate from and secondary to our core mission. To the contrary, our wellness is a critical element of our mission. You can find a much deeper analysis of this idea here. As the CNO preaches, people are the US Navy’s asymmetric advantage. We need to put power behind the idea that platforms are tools for people rather than the inverse.
Some also criticized me for “complaining without a solution.” That’s another cultural problem. If I see a fire in a building, do I call 911 to tell them how to put it out? No. We are a team, and if I see an issue, even if I’m unsure how to fix it, I know there’s some seaman or admiral in our great Navy that has a solution. Rather than sourcing solutions individually we need to be able to air our problems collectively to develop better, more nuanced appreciations of them in order to craft enduring solutions. We need more whole-of-Navy solutions and fewer silver bullet, one-off quick fixes.
I love the U.S. Navy, and I love what it stands for. I just believe we can be better. I love the surface force, but I wonder when we will stop trying to resemble the elite organization we once were, and start becoming the elite organization of the future. I love writing, and I love the idea of our sailors and officers sharing their ideas in an open forum, but I suspect we’re not hearing from a large portion of our force. Millennials, I’m looking at you. It also seems like any discussion on millennials is talking about them, instead of engaging them. I know it can be difficult for junior officers and sailors to speak out. So, fellow millennials, here’s my offer: if you have something to say about how we could be better as a Navy, but can’t publish it yourself for whatever reason, email me at:
The first thing I’m going to do is try to help you find a way to publish your ideas under your own name. If we can’t make it happen, and I can get behind your ideas, I’ll post it under the Salty Millennial pseudonym (the Naval Institute has been amazing, but we have other options if it’s not for them). This will give you space until you’re ready to step up publicly, and it won’t be anonymous since, after today, everyone knows who I am. One more thing: please, please, please do NOT send me any classified or private information.
The Bottom Line
To Millennials: Let’s work together to make the Navy better. If you think I’m wrong about the Navy needing to improve, then say so—push back—highlight our best practices so we can share them widely. If you think I’m wrong on how it should improve, then prove me wrong by penning your own piece for all to see. One of the hallmarks of high performing organizations is continuous improvement. Leaders need to be prepared to defend their words and actions from criticism, but that starts with challenging them on key errors.
To Everyone Else: Make no mistake, our Navy is the best in the world, but our threats are multiplying and growing more sophisticated while we grapple with the same old issues. The only way for us to remain ahead in the long-term is by recruiting and harnessing our talent better than anyone else. We don’t have to have all the right answers now, but we do need to have the right people. I believe we have those people already. We need to tap into their talent. That starts with embracing millennials rather than treating them like a problem to be managed.