Distributed Maritime Operations: Back to the Future?


“We are accustomed to speak of naval and military strategy as though they were distinct branches of knowledge, which had no common ground. It is a theory of war [that] brings out their intimate relation. It reveals that embracing them both is a larger strategy [that] regards the fleet and army as one weapon, which coordinates their action, and indicates the lines on which each must move to realize the full power of both.”

– Sir Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy


Defense thinkers are rediscovering the utility of sea denial capabilities. In October 2014, Congressmen Randy Forbes sent General Ray Odierno, Chief of Staff of the Army, a letter calling on the Army to examine developing land-based anti-ship missiles in line with a RAND study. For the last two years, military officers in the Marine Corps Advanced Studies Program in Quantico, Virginia similarly studied integrating distributed land and sea forces optimized to deny air and sea lines of communication. Combined these efforts signal an emerging interest in distributed maritime operations, the use of small littoral detachments to threaten enemy airplanes and ships.

Operational Art in the Rebalance

A growing number of strategists call for using multi-domain platforms to counter growing adversary, read Chinese, naval capabilities. The concepts are a departure from visions of naval warfare prefacing a Mahanian decisive fleet engagement pitting ship against ship. Andrew Krepinevich argues for “archipelagic defense” in which land-based units conduct maritime interdiction and sea denial in the first island chain. Armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and air defense assets as well as mines and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones, these units would “deter by denial,” and, according to James R. Holmes, change the cost calculation of any future Chinese territory grabs.

Krepinevich’s concept builds on earlier work by Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) fellow Jim Thomas. In 2012, Jim Thomas argued for land-based missiles acting in a cross-domain denial approach to deter Chinese air and naval forces. These CSBA studies parallel scholarship by James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara proposing a maritime cost-imposing strategy modeled on the Duke of Wellington’s 1807-14 campaign in Portugal and Spain. They envisioned ground based anti-ship missiles like the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force truck-launched Type 88 conducting “shoot and scoot” missions from dispersed island chains.

Japanese Type 88 Anti-Ship Missile

Multiple service concepts imagine future war and crisis management conducted by dispersed systems optimized for similar cost-imposing campaigns. The U.S. Marine Corps is experimenting with a new concept that envisions employing F-35Bs to “activate a shifting network of expeditionary airfields, tactical landing zones and forward arming and refueling points with the intent of complicating enemy targeting solutions.” The U.S. Navy is exploring a new concept, “distributed lethality,” that envisions dispersed, hunter-killer surface action groups designed to “provide persistent presence that can influence and control events at sea and in the littorals, applying the right capability to the right target for the joint-force commander.” The U.S. Air Force is conducting proof-of-concept exercises to test “Rapid Raptor” – deploying detachments of F-22s with all support personnel and material on C-17s to friendly air bases on short notice.

All of these initiatives arise from a military problem outlined in the Joint Operational Access Concept: how can U.S. forces assure access in the face of proliferating anti-access/area denial threats? Publicly released in 2010, AirSea Battle calls for a blinding campaign and series of deep strikes that disable adversary command systems and intelligence assets in order to disrupt their anti-access/area denial network. Opposite this approach, offshore control envisions disrupting sea-lanes and threatening an adversary’s economy rather than attempting direct military action. The concept is reminiscent of “commerce raiding,” a form of naval warfare that targets enemy logistics and commercial activity either through military action or a blockade. Where AirSea Battle seeks a decisive, opening attack that disrupts Chinese forces, offshore control is reminiscent of Pericles’ strategy during the Peloponnesian War. Just as Athens’ walls denied the Spartans battle while coastal raids sought a Helot slave uprising, offshore control enthusiasts like T.X. Hammes of War on the Rocks are betting the economic strain of a blockade will cause domestic unrest in China that forces Beijing to back down in a crisis.

Distributed maritime operations take a different point of departure. Rather than attack mainland command and intelligence assets in a crisis with China (e.g., AirSea Battle) or threaten commercial shipping lanes (e.g., offshore control), small, dispersed land and sea detachments threaten the ability of Chinese forces to concentrate from within their anti-access/area denial umbrella. These forces deny Chinese freedom of movement along key sea and air lines communication. Distributed forces change the adversary’s cost calculus and buy time for flexible deterrence options and assembling a joint task force.

There are important, often unrecognized, historical precedents to this concept. Julian Corbett’s 1911 classic, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, proposed a “fleet in being” that would tie down the enemy while the larger fleet assembled for a decisive naval battle. This temporary force denied an enemy from achieving local superiority. In fact, much of Corbett’s focus was on the difficulty of sea control and the fluidity of offensive and defensive actions in the maritime contest to secure sea lines of communication to transit land forces.

The idea of integrating land forces into the “fleet in being” also has roots in the evolution of American maritime strategy. Starting in the 1860s, the U.S. Navy became interested in coaling stations and bases in the Pacific. These expeditionary nodes became a focal point of American strategy after the Spanish-American War and the publication of Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-I783. In 1900, the United States Navy established a general staff-like body, the General Board, whose analysis of the tyranny of distance and need for “advanced bases” formed the core of War Plan Orange, an early 20th century U.S. military plan for countering Japanese attacks in the Pacific.

War Plan Orange, 1907-1910

As part of War Plan Orange, the Marine Corps developed capabilities to seize “advanced bases” in the Pacific and defend them until a larger fleet could steam to the area. In the 1914 Culebra exercise, an Advanced Base Force Brigade deployed and successfully established a coastal defense network that included coastal artillery, naval mines, communications, search lights, and hardened fighting positions designed to deny a port to raids. The concept proposed a “fleet in being,” a land force establishing localized strong points that disrupted adversary sea lines of communication while the larger fleet mobilized.

Other examples of integrating land and sea forces to deny enemy freedom of movement abound. In 1939, the British Royal Marines established the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organization to secure advanced bases. The organization, like the Advanced Base Force, employed coastal defense artillery and anti-aircraft batteries. For decades, multiple Scandinavian countries have deployed “coastal rangers” designed to take advantage of archipelagos in the Baltic Sea. These teams are optimized for counter attack and terrain denial, equipped with sufficient anti-air, anti-ship, and fire support to increase the cost of any Russian amphibious activity. A growing number of U.S. military officers, such as Major Chris Richardella, see this rich history of land and sea integration as the key to future crisis response in the Asia-Pacific.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviets both developed concepts for integrating land and sea forces in their maritime strategies. In Sea Power of the State, Soviet Admiral Gorshkov called for joint army and navy operations, arguing that historically ground forces able to capture coastal areas directly contribute to the command of the sea. Soviet thinkers envisioned positioning expeditionary bases, ISR assets, and anti-ship and anti-air platforms in the Arctic as a means of preventing NATO surface ships and submarines from threatening their northern lines of communication. In the extreme, the approach called for the seizure of Norway and using its coastline to control the sea-lanes between the Arctic and Atlantic.

Key Sea Lines of Communication

NATO planners also saw the importance of denying Soviet maritime control of critical sea-lanes through a mix of land and sea based forces. In a 1985 piece entitled “The Amphibious Warfare Strategy,” General P.X. Kelley and Major Hugh O’Donnnell argued:

NATO’s Northern Flank will be the scene of tense drama, in which amphibious forces can play a key role. As allied naval forces fight for control of the Norwegian Sea, they will be supported by the air component of MAGTFs ashore. As the Soviet invader is worn down, opportunities will develop for amphibious assaults along the Norwegian coast to his rear, to reclaim any airfields and ports that may have been lost in the war’s initial days.

1980s Amphibious Attack Concept

Like these earlier concepts, integrating land and naval forces as a “fleet in being” denying adversary sea control is at the core of the emerging distributed maritime operations paradigm. Similar to earlier experiments with Advanced Base defense and using amphibious forces to deny adversary key lines of communication, the new concept envisions undermining anti-access/area denial threats from within. In a future standoff with a near peer competitor, the United States will be the away team faced with a significant anti-access/area denial threat. The goal of any anti-access/area denial umbrella, from Chinese capabilities in the Western Pacific to Russian assets in the Baltic, will be to deny U.S. power projection in order to gain and maintain freedom of movement.

Attacking the systems that generate this anti-access/area denial umbrella is an attritional approach. As long as the enemy is operating on interior lines and has a large number of anti-ship and anti-air systems or cost advantages relative to U.S. forces, the approach has declining returns. Alternatively, using low-signature, low-risk platforms to deny enemy freedom of movement attacks the adversary’s plan. It presents the enemy with a compounding dilemma and by denying key sea lines of communication, enables crisis response options while a larger joint force aggregates.

Instead of massive aircraft carriers with 5,000 sailors onboard, imagine an array of anti-ship and anti-air platforms distributed by helicopters across an island chain during a crisis. These forces, like the earlier Advanced Base Defense forces, would increase the cost of the enemy advance while a larger task force assembled. They would connect with a larger expeditionary network linking multiple classes of ships with expeditionary airfields. They would leverage fleet-based intelligence assets via Link 16. While the dispersed teams would be easily overwhelmed by a large attack, their mobility allows them to disperse. They substitute speed and mobility for mass. Furthermore, risking a ten-person detachment is a better gamble than 500 sailors on a destroyer or 5,000 on an aircraft carrier.

This idea, developed by U.S. military officers participating in the Marine Corps’ Advanced Studies Program in 2013 and early 2014, is striking similar to concepts espoused by Krepinevich, Holmes, Ishihara, and Thomas. What makes the Advanced Studies students’ work unique is that they thought through the range of enabling concepts and capabilities required to make distributed maritime operations a reality.

Similar to the “Pacific Pathways” idea, the Advanced Studies Program students proposed an “engagement pull” concept. In order for dispersed land units to conduct “reconnaissance pull,” creating gaps for friendly forces to exploit through denying enemy freedom movement, they require access to and understanding of local terrain. To find the right locations and facilitate the rapid deployment of expeditionary anti-ship and anti-air detachments, forward deployed area officers would prep the battlefield through establishing close working relationships with partner nations. In the event of a crisis, they transition to receipt, staging and onward integration cells coordinating local deployments. Furthermore, engagement pull can be a multiple domain activity. U.S. forces could field “cyber engagement teams” that hold the adversary’s command networks at risk while bolstering partner cyber defenses.

Humvee with Medium Range Anti-Air Missile (AMRAAM)

The critical capability is a credible suite of lightweight, airmobile platforms that threaten enemy sea and air lines of communication. Instead of using long-range fires and cyber offensive actions to paralyze enemy command and intelligence systems as envisioned by AirSea Battle, small expeditionary detachments armed with anti-ship and air-air systems would deploy within the anti-access/area denial umbrella. For example, two small detachments could deploy by helicopter from littoral combat ships armed with modified SPIKE-ER missiles similar to the Finnish Coastal Jaegers and man-portable anti-air systems. A larger detachment could then deploy with a MQ-8 Fire Scout and wheeled vehicles capable of conducting air and sea denial. Distributing these area denial detachments in the early stages of a crisis threatens an adversary’s freedom of movement without significantly escalating the situation.

To aggregate small teams ranging from cyber experts to small crews operating dispersed air and sea denial weapons alongside unmanned surveillance systems, the Advanced Studies students proposed a new intra-theater movement concept: “network mobility.” Scalable and flexible expeditionary air bases would provide network attachment points enabling the commander to flow assets across the theater using air and sea based assets. Network mobility requires forces significantly lighter and smaller than distributed sites currently under consideration. It also requires investing in a wider range of connectors to enable forces to flow along the network. Aviation capable Navy surface platforms such as the Littoral Combat Ship and Joint High Speed Vessel could be modified to launch air and sea denial teams just as the United States modified destroyers in the Pacific during World War II to launch Marine Raiders. Distributed forces only work if there are multiple connectors forming a flexible network.

WWII Modified Destroyer Launching Marine Raiders

While all of the capabilities required to field small teams that invert anti-access/area denial problem are currently available, proper command relationships and risk culture limit their realization. First, who is in charge? Are distributed teams operating anti-air and anti-ship assets commanded by the Fleet, by a forward deployed Marine Expeditionary Unit, or by over-the-horizon elements like the Marine Expeditionary Brigade? The inherently joint character of the concept compounds the command dilemma.

Second, a culture of low risk tolerance among senior officers will complicate experimenting with fielding small detachments. Military bureaucracy is historically risk-averse. That trend has only increased since 2003. Over the last decade, U.S. forces sacrificed mobility for increased armor protection in the counter-IED fight. Lost was a simple idea: mobility, deception, and surprise are the best forms of force protection. To realize distributed maritime operations will require changing that risk culture. Furthermore, military education will need to offer outlets for more creative and adaptive maritime exercises oriented around problem-solving and competitive risk-taking (i.e., increasing the enemy’s risk relative to your own).

Neither challenge is insurmountable. The concepts and capabilities required to implement distributed maritime operations are within reach despite looming budget cuts and force structure reductions. It is neither an expensive nor an especially novel adaptation. The central idea animating distributed maritime operations seems to be enduring. The logic emerges whenever a great power confronts an anti-access/area denial threat in multiple domains. The United States is currently facing that challenge in multiple theaters. Building a credible challenge to the anti-access/area denial dilemma should be a military priority. Whether defending a NATO ally in the Baltic or managing future crises with China in the Western Pacific, the U.S. military will need a credible, conventional deterrent.


Benjamin M. Jensen, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the Marine Corps University, Command and Staff College where he coordinates the Advanced Studies Program. He holds a dual appointment as a Scholar in Residence at American University, School of International Service. Outside of academia he is an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. The opinions expressed in this article are not official U.S. government policy. This work builds on insights from participants in the 2013/2014 Advanced Studies Program including LCDR Craig Allen (USCG), Dr. Anne-Louis Antonoff, MAJ Chris Carter (USA), MAJ Mary Cassidy (USA), Maj Duane Durant (USMC), Maj Jon Erskine (USMC),CDR Russell Evans (USN), MAJ Stephen Irving (USA), MAJ Stephen Lamb (USAF), Maj Matt Lesnowics (USMC), Maj Michael Murray (USMC), Maj Mike Ogden (USMC), MAJ Julius Romasanta (USAF), LtCol Brian Ross (USMC), Maj William Smith (USMC), Maj Brandon Sullivan (USMC) and LCDR Geoff Townsend (USN).


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery