When the U.S. Navy Enters the next Super Bowl, Will It Play like the Denver Broncos?


In last year’s Super Bowl XLVIII, the Denver Broncos were the odds-on-favorite to win. However, when the confetti fell four hours later, the Seattle Seahawks had humiliated the Broncos. Although sports analogies can be imprecise when applied to military conflict, there are a number of striking and important parallels that apply to the U.S. Navy as it relates to China. In the event of a major conflict between the U.S. and Chinese navies, the prohibitive favorite would appear to be the U.S. Navy, but if we get complacent, there could be an upset.

Denver was favored to win the Super Bowl. The Broncos had (and still have) Peyton Manning, a storied quarterback from a family dynasty. He is reported to have an excellent memory and the ability to quickly read the opposition in real time to choose the best play. He is an experienced and extremely capable passer and his record-setting 2013 season was one of the reasons his team was favored. But the seeds of Denver’s demise were planted long before the two teams arrived in New Jersey. Denver’s flaws were based on their past successes: a predictable pattern of play, assumed information dominance, a dependence on one central position, an inability to anticipate an opponent’s countermoves and, finally, panic, when events did not go their way.

Denver’s offense assumed it could read its opponent. What it did not prepare for was its opponent’s ability to read the Manning-led team. Seattle players boasted after the game that they could read the quarterback’s hand signals and eyes. These intercepted signals, combined with close examination of Denver’s plays in past games, unlocked the Broncos’ playbook. As any good team would, the Seahawks designed counter plays to limit Denver’s effectiveness.

The Broncos panicked. The first sign things were not going their way occurred on the first play. Denver had not been prepared for the “12th man” factor in an ostensibly neutral stadium. Seattle’s raucous fans turned up the volume, interfering with Denver’s ability to call the play. When the quarterback moved forward to overcome the noise, the center snapped the ball over his head. On the first play of the game, the Seahawks scored a safety. This was only the beginning. As time went on and their typically reliable plays were limited in their effectiveness, the Broncos started to make more and more mistakes. Momentum, both psychological and physical, grew against them. Denver lacked alternatives and panic set in.

The U.S. Navy might want to pay attention to the last Super Bowl and internalize those lessons in the face of a potential adversary such as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy. The parallels are significant. The U.S. Navy has been playing the same playbook for a very long time. It assumes it will have information dominance. It is dependent on a single platform for major operations, with major tells of its own. It has not been in a real contest for more than a decade and it has not been as serious about even playing scrimmages and preparing its forces for combat as it has in the past.

The Navy’s playbook has changed little in sixty years. Aircraft carriers became the dominant platform in World War II and have remained so ever since. Naval tactics, operational planning, and strategy have been centered around the carrier to provide power projection for the fleet. This fixation has gone so far as to encourage employing amphibious flagships such as the America-class LHA as “Lightning Carriers” and relegating destroyers to the role of defending the big ships. This has shaped our acquisition process accordingly. The U.S. Navy has constructed ever larger (and fewer) aircraft carriers in order to increase sortie rates, culminating in the behemoth Ford-class. All fleet operations are variations on the theme of carriers delivering ordnance. For more than a decade, the Navy has continued this trend even against opponents who cannot contest the air or sea domains. With some attention to potential rivals, the U.S. Navy has identified the need to read an opponent’s approach in order to enable the aircraft carrier to remain dominant.

The flaws in this approach are not obvious, but they are real. The U.S. Navy has assumed it will maintain what is known as “Information Dominance” prior to and during a conflict. It has created an Information Dominance Corps in an effort to “provide our operating forces with sufficient over-match in wartime command and control” to overcome the friction and fog of war. This will be necessary to enable the aircraft carrier to operate in the face of precise anti-ship weapons at sea. However, definitions of information dominance are hard to come by and history is replete with failures to overcome friction and the fog of war. Thus strategies which depend on such requirements are likely doomed to failure.

Like the Broncos, the Navy is dependent on a single platform. Few U.S. Navy surface ships are armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and they have limited supplies of strike weapons such as tomahawk cruise missiles. Moreover, they have no ability to reload either in theater once a conflict has started. While submarines are effective anti-ship platforms, they are limited in their perception of the battlefield and require time to employ their limited supplies of torpedoes. Submarines also have a very limited supply of strike weapons and cannot be reloaded in theater once a conflict has begun. Thus the main, and realistically only, striking arm of the U.S. Navy is the aircraft carrier. By design, our navy is overly dependent on this one central platform for its combat effectiveness.

For these reasons, the aircraft carrier represents the U.S. Navy’s “tell” in a conflict. While modern carriers are very efficient in delivering combat power, they are also very large and have an extremely large signature. You can see them coming and you can tell where they are. There is an old story that during the run-up to conflict, the president routinely asks: “Where are the carriers?” But now there is a new corollary: our opponents are asking the same question, and for them the answer is also the key to the knowing the whereabouts of the fleet. Because of its central role in fleet operations, the carrier, like a quarterback, calls the shots and has a target on its back. By tracking our star player, an opponent has the ability to read our plays.

While the U.S. Navy plans on exploiting information dominance to maximize the effectiveness of strikes from the aircraft carrier, it should not assume we can read our opponent’s plays. Modern communications systems like fiber optics and advanced encryption systems will limit our ability to read other forces’ playbooks, and strategies based on the assumption of such dominance are doomed to fail. Meanwhile, the ability of our peers to read our actions will continue to increase.

China has been watching us closely. We should not be surprised that they are developing strategies to counter our playbooks; they’ve had a long time to see how we operate. Weapons such as Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs), cruise missiles, and others are but outward symbols of the PLA Navy’s strategy to pressure and limit the effectiveness of aircraft carriers and supporting airfields.

Like Seattle, China has made considerable investment in its own “12th man.” The PLA has made a substantial outlay in advanced electronic warfare and related systems to limit our ability to understand the battlefield and communicate in the event of a conflict.

In the event of a war, we can expect the PLA to be an aggressive player of “active defense” to neutralize and defeat our standard playbook. We can expect them to put heavy pressure against the aircraft carrier and other critical systems. We can expect them to exploit the inevitable mistakes which will arise.

The question is whether the U.S. Navy will panic under such pressure. For more than a decade the U.S. Navy has been focused on addressing enemies who cannot contest the air or sea. During that time, the Navy has not been conducting the wargames and exercises preparing for a peer competitor in the manner that made it a dominant player in World War II and the Cold War. With a focus on irregular warfare, it has not been practicing for the next “Super Bowl” nearly to the same degree it did when we were primed to engage the Soviet Union. Leaders have not had to prepare for such conflicts and have not been tested in the “scrimmage games” against aggressive opponents. There is considerable danger of commanders who have not been disposed to the inevitable losses and setbacks to panic, particularly if they have limited options to respond.

The U.S. Navy has made some steps to prepare for a “Super Bowl” scale conflict, but they must be reinforced. We need to develop new playbooks, new capabilities which are not dependent on a single platform and can operate in the face of the “12th man.” The U.S. Navy needs to develop a fleet which can conduct multiple new plays. This fleet must be able to take a sustained offense to the enemy with or without the aircraft carrier. It must be able to challenge potential opponents in new, unexpected ways that neutralize the challengers’ strategies. It must decentralize and distribute capabilities to remove central vulnerabilities of both platforms and decision making. This includes development of advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, advanced strike weapons, and other systems which can operate from reloadable vertical launch systems aboard destroyers and large capacity submarines. It includes a more balanced fleet incorporating flotillas to challenge our opponents in the littorals, cutting him off from his objective and placing a stranglehold on his access to the sea. It must return to doctrine which supports decentralized decision making and takes advantage of our cultural advantages of initiative. There are other concepts and ideas not explored here, but which should be in order to expand the U.S. playbook.

To do these things will require a return to one of our historic achievements, which we have left fallow: wargaming and fleet exercises supported by analysis. These critical tools enable exploration of new battlefield concepts and the elements necessary to make them effective. They enable the alignment of concepts with the identification and understanding of the materials necessary to implement them. Just as importantly, wargames and exercises prepare future leaders for the inevitable friction and fog of war, and for the losses of ships and people. It prepares them for the shock and surprise which will inevitably occur in battle. Properly employed, wargames inculcate initiative in junior leaders, preparing them for future leadership roles. Properly prepared, they will not panic; they will thrive in the chaos of war.

The U.S. Navy is widely rated as the most capable in the world. Similarly, going into the Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos were expected to win. But their opponents were prepared and had plenty of time to understand Denver’s way of playing the game. Using that knowledge Seattle was able to take Denver apart, limiting their effectiveness until panic set in. The U.S. Navy faces a similar danger if it does not adjust its own way of playing. It needs to expand its playbook, reduce its dependency on a single platform, distribute its ability to threaten and strike an opponent, and prepare for war employing wargames and exercises supported by analysis. There is no prize for second place in the “Super Bowl” of international crisis.


Commander Phillip Pournelle is a surface warfare officer and an operations analyst. He serves on the staff of the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment. He has a master’s degree in operations analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official view, policy, or position of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery