U.S. Naval Forces Before and Beyond Battle


Editor’s Note: The following article is adapted from the author’s recent remarks at AUSA.

Maritime strategists have long heeded Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson’s wise maxim: “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort.”  However, for the last few decades the United States Navy has fearlessly ignored the good admiral’s advice.  From Bosnia and Afghanistan in the 1990s to Syria, Libya and Iraq today, America’s Navy has projected its formidable fire power from the sea onto land unchallenged. Our enemies have allowed us to own the seas and the skies and to communicate freely.

U.S. forces have been challenged in the information domain and in the human terrain, but technologically and since the fall of the Soviet Union, the military has not had to consider how to fight “unplugged,” with degraded or compromised command and control systems. Nor have the Pentagon and forces in the field been forced to consider what the fight might look and feel like without air superiority or fire support from the sea. This dominance also allowed our allies to pay too little attention to the same problems for too long. For the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, this dominance manifested in the ability to sail freely and to project power from the sea — whether airstrikes from carriers or Tomahawk cruise missiles from cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. Marines and Navy SEALS fighting inland similarly enjoyed unchallenged air support and an unprecedented level of ISR.

This is all changing.  Emerging near-peer competitors are rapidly fielding new capabilities with ever-increasing reach, precision, and accompanying target systems.  U.S. forces can no longer assume assured access to the information and electromagnetic domains. We will be challenged in all domains in this new age of multi-domain warfare.

As our country and its military forces venture into this new, more uncomfortable space and consider a potentially challenged and degraded command and control environment, we cannot proceed trapped by independent service silos. We have long thought about “joint operations,” but as we consider the battlefield of the future against more capable emerging competitors, we must now think more broadly about what we need from each other as we organize ourselves to deliver our part of the fight.

The Navy’s Role

These are the challenges that have animated some hard thinking at the Department of the Navy about what the Navy and Marine Corps together contribute. First, it is important that we expand our aperture beyond the battlefield. We need to start thinking about multi-domain competition and multi-domain warfare, to include deterrence. Planning for battles or organizing and sizing U.S. forces for a certain type of battle, as we have been doing for decades, is necessary, but not sufficient. It is also dangerous. There are several reasons for this.

America’s future competitors will offer challenges not only in multiple domains — air, sea, land, cyber, space — but also across regions. Therefore, the United States must be prepared to operate simultaneously across regions and within all domains. Further, a battle-oriented perspective often shortchanges thinking and planning on the critical tasks of deterrence, sustainment, and the consolidation of gains (otherwise known as “winning”). As such, when we broaden our aperture beyond the battle itself, it is clear that naval forces cannot do it all, but still possesses at least four unique roles integral to multi-domain warfare: deterrence, power projection, sea control, and strategic sealift.

The Navy provides strategic deterrence by punishment via strategic nuclear subs armed with nuclear weapons, and it provides conventional deterrence by denial via globally postured naval forces. The Navy’s ability to deter by denial requires credible lethal forces postured forward. Deterrence through denial and forward presence are often associated with what is known as “phase zero” operations. While this is true, credible conventional deterrence can only be achieved through lethal forces distributed globally with the staying power and endurance to absorb or deliver the first punch. Presence without lethality is not credible and does not impose costs.

If deterrence should fail, the fact that U.S. naval forces are postured globally is critical. In some theaters, naval forces will provide the first response. Because the United States must be ready to challenge adversaries in multiple theaters simultaneously or perhaps deter in one theater even while fighting in another, we need these lethal credible forces in sufficient numbers.

Naval forces can only be credible if they can project power and control the seas. Sea control and power projection are two sides of the naval force coin. Sea control suggests ships on (and under) the water as well as planes in the air netted together passing information working together in a combined arms fashion across large swathes of ocean (littoral or blue water) and controlling these zones through denial or interdiction.  Establishing such zones requires a basket of capabilities, both offensive and defensive, such as ships and aircraft armed with anti-ship missiles, anti-air missiles, submarines with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, and, ideally, coastal cruise missiles, all with the sensor and information grids to support targeting.  Such advanced capabilities are required to counter a peer maritime competitor possessing advanced defensive capabilities.

Sea control also provides a sanctuary from which naval forces can project power ashore. Indeed, sea control is usually a necessary precondition for such power projection. The Navy projects power from the sea using the Marines Corps or with lethal precision fires from ships, subs, or carrier-based aircraft. Sea control can also support ground force maneuver and thereby enable that power projection to succeed. One example of this is when naval forces and a Marine Expeditionary Brigade were used in Desert Storm to pin forces in Kuwait while U.S. Army and coalition forces executed a sweeping movement into Iraq and across southern Iraq. This is nothing new. Sea control and power projection are what define the most powerful naval forces.

Yet something else makes it all possible. As the saying goes, amateurs talk tactics, while professionals talk logistics. Sealift is a key enabler to multi-domain battle and cannot be relegated to bottom of the priority list. Just as sea control enables power projection ashore, it also enables strategic sealift. We must consider this across all phases of operations. Army units on their way to the fight could be stopped at sea if the adversary sinks ships with key materiel aboard. The potential for hacking unprotected logistics databases that reveal cargo loads and departure times of sea lift shipping is a critical vulnerability.

This brings me back to my first point: Thinking about challenging specific adversaries before and beyond battle in multiple theaters means that we need more than lethal capabilities for deterrence, sea control, power projection, and sealift. It also means we need capacity. Problem is, we have only so much to go around. The requirement to fight and deter in multiple theaters is made more difficult by the fact that, as Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson observed, “different theaters present unique challenges,” so a “one size fits all approach” will not work.

To make up for this gap, we need to be clever. New ideas being discussed among Navy and Marine Corps strategists, including distributed lethality or distributed fleet operations, Navy-Marine Corps integration, and new approaches to information management for command and control are all promising ideas that need to drive how we organize train and equip our future force.

Distributed lethality means making every ship on the water a more lethal, offensive asset to force the enemy to spread his forces across the battlespace to counter multiple targets. As we embrace these concepts, we can take Navy and Marine Corps integration to the next level. One promising recent example saw Marine Corps F-35B used in sea control missions, and a future example might see Army fires (such as coastal cruise missiles) used in sea control missions. This gives us the option to use our big-deck amphibious assault ships like carriers. Think about the USS America with F-35Bs and how we can rebuild Expeditionary Strike Groups — integrated with our distributed fleet — that field inherent multi-domain capabilities.

Integration and distributed lethality both require that we network our sensors and disseminate tactical and operational information rapidly and securely. Such networks are also critical if we are to fully leverage man-machine teaming and unmanned systems, the secret sauce of the third offset strategy, to enable force multiplication across the joint force.

The idea of a netted navy (or a netted joint or combined force) is also promising — indeed, it will be our key enabler of these ideas. But it is also a challenge. The joint force must own the electro-magnetic spectrum and be able to secure its data to facilitate maneuver and deceive or deny the spectrum to our adversaries. If and when our systems are compromised, we must be able to fight unplugged.

Finally, and most importantly, in order to achieve this vision, we must continue to recruit, train, and retain America’s best and brightest with a diverse pool of talent that will enable multi-domain battle. Ultimately, it is our people who are our asymmetric advantage: from hackers, big data analysts, and network information professionals to salty sailors and Marines who can lead and fight through any conditions.

As the future unfolds and, along with it, new obstacles to American power and interests, it is these men and women of America’s Navy and Marine Corps, as well as the civilians who serve in support, who give me great confidence. America is a nation of innovators and our naval forces are no exception. Just as our forces have adapted and innovated in order to master past strategic environments, they will do the same with the next challenges. We are already doing it. Solutions and leaders will emerge from the ranks and those of us in senior leadership today must create an environment that makes that possible. What today seems uncomfortable and new – such as the shifting demands of deterrence, competition, and warfare – will tomorrow become an organic part of how we man, train, and equip our naval forces.


Dr. Janine Davidson is the 32nd Under Secretary of the Navy.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brianna Gaudi