Tac Talks: How Will We Fight?

Tac Talks No. 21
Tac Talks No. 21

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CMDR Robbie Swift



Organized force alone enables the quiet and the weak to go about their business and to sleep securely in their beds, safe from the violent without or within.
- Alfred Thayer Mahan

Exercise TALISMAN SABRE saw the certification of the Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) and the LHD capability at Full Operational Capability (FOC). This magnificent achievement is the culmination of a decade of work, years in which we have developed a truly world-class joint amphibious capability and an understanding of how we will use it when the moment arrives. While ready for anything, our amphibious capability is perfect for most likely future operation; near-regional, low threat, requiring security stabilisation, NEO or HADR-type activities, as well as more challenging combat operations. But while this may be our most likely operation, I believe it is not our most likely fight. In my view, our most likely fight will not be from the sea; it will be on the sea and for the sea, a sea combat campaign that will place a premium on distributed lethality, overtly offensive in nature and delivered principally through the rapid manoeuvre and decisive, kinetic actions of our surface combatant force. While it is vital that we maintain our capability and readiness in support of our joint amphibious capability, I believe it is time we also placed more of a premium on developing our sea combat capabilities to meet the challenges of the fight ahead.

We need to be able to fight independently against small to medium-level threats, but also be prepared to fight in company with a larger ally against a larger foe. Any fight may demand joint, combined and all-arms maritime operations to seize control of the seas for ourselves and deny use of the seas to the enemy, while requiring coordinated effects at the strategic, operational and tactical levels to establish the pre-conditions for combat activities. The timing of the fight is unlikely to be within out gift; our adversary may decide to fight when they are convinced that they will not lose, even if they are not convinced that they will win. Our ally may decide not to allow them that choice. Either way, it is likely to come with little notice and will be short, desperate and brutal. A number of recent strategic and operational analyses have provided insight into what such a fight might look like, taking the approach “tell me how we will win”. To that I would add “tell me how we will fight”.

How will we fight? Are the analysis lessons flowing down to every level? Do we as a Navy have a deep understanding of each of our likely roles and responsibilities in such a fight? Do we know how our different capabilities will be employed, and what the interdependencies will be? Do we understand the C2 construct that will underpin the fight? Are we training how we will fight and do our exercises test how we will fight?

Frankly, I am not convinced that the answer to all these questions would be reassuring, but I’m hoping someone will let me know what to do when the time comes! In the meantime, based on only my own observations and prejudices, in the following paragraphs I highlight a few areas where I believe we need to do more to know how we will fight.

How Will We Fight? - Information Warfare


Our forces face the very real possibility of arriving in a future combat theater and finding themselves facing an arsenal of advanced, disruptive technologies that could turn our previous technological advantage on its head - where our armed forces no longer have uncontested theater access or unfettered operational freedom of manoeuvre.
- Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, 5 August 2014

The proliferation of cyber and other disruptive capabilities among even smaller nations means that in future we may not be able to guarantee that the SA and C4I architectures that underpin our combat capabilities will always be available to us. There is an urgent need therefore to understand how we fill fight in in a disrupted environment, to embed the necessary technical, tactical and training processes to ensure we can see through an imposed fog of war. I am sure that these issues are at the forefront of our capability development process, but from a seagoing warfighter’s perspective this remains an esoteric discussion that as yet has not informed us at all how we will fight. Much of this work falls within the realm of Information Warfare (IW), a capability that promises to reshape our approach to how we comprehend, plan and execute warfighting operations in every environment. It will change the way we fight. But the capability appears to be permanently over the horizon, always coming next year or in the next exercise. If we are to leverage the benefits of an IW approach, normalise it as part of our fighting methodology and address the challenges of C2D2E, it is imperative that we get the capability to sea at the earliest juncture.

How Will We Fight? - Sea Control


He who controls the sea controls everything.
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (c. 400 BC)

Aside from an electronic threat, an array of missile, torpedo, mines and other threats may be fielded by any future adversary that will make entry of our maritime assets into an operational theatre unthinkable without significant theatre-level treatment of the threat in advance. Until this threat is reduced, we cannot begin to countenance achieving Sea Control, a condition that exists only when we are capable of mounting the full range of combat operations within acceptable levels of risk given the threat and the desired combat objectives. Sea Control does not mean command of all the seas, all the time. Rather, it is the capability and capacity to impose localised control of the seas when and where it is required to enable other objectives to be met, holding it as long as is necessary to accomplish those objectives. The preconditions required for Sea Control can only be achieved through a complex mix of air operations, submarine warfare, theatre ASW and other operational measures before we even consider committing mission essential units to the fight. Moreover, our view of Sea Control needs to shift from seeing it as a static defensive undertaking to one of dynamic offense, using rapid and powerful sea combat manoeuvre groups to seize the initiative and hold control of the seas for only the period we need, forcing the enemy to be reactive to our operations.

And yet we continue to consider, exercise and assess Sea Control as some sort of defensive, one-off tactical SAG vs SAG scenario or CASEX event. Let’s be quite clear; if there is a surface or submarine threat within touching distance of our own protected forces we manifestly do not have Sea Control. Unless we introduce, program, resource and fund realistic levels of C2 and other capabilities required to achieve Sea Control into our training and exercises - even if it means separating out the testing and assessing of staffs from tactical live training through CPX activity - we will not measure the Sea Control capability we need for the fight.

How Will We Fight? - Distributed Lethality


The force we send forward to control the seas must be powerful, hard to find, hard to kill, and lethal. These are the bedrock tenets of distributed lethality.
- Vice Admiral Thomas A Rowden, US Navy, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, US Pacific Fleet, Proceedings January 2017

In recent years, the USN has adopted a new strategy of “distributed lethality” which marks a shift away from a defensive mindset in which the principal role of surface combatants is to protect high value units, to a new offensive mindset by increasing the offensive power of individual components of the surface force and then employing them in dispersed offensive formations known as “hunter-killer SAGs”. It is the motive force behind offensive Sea Control.

In my view the maritime sea combat task group is the key instrument through which the RAN will deliver distributed lethality. The evolution of our sea combat task group capability into a fast, agile, adaptable and hard-hitting entity, capable of a variety of missions, is vital if we are to win the fight. It must have a light but tight embarked C2 footprint, with robust and cyber hardened C4I systems, capable of rapid mission planning and execution and independent operations when required. It must have capable organic ISR systems, including unmanned systems, a powerful, stand-off AsuW and ASW capability built on next generation weapons and sensors. It needs to be trained and exercised against realistic missions in complex scenarios, empowered by developed, practiced and ingrained OIP, a fast, flexible and formidable strike force, confidently capable of going toe-to-toe with any enemy and defending itself from surface, air and submarine threats. To support this, we will need to up-armour our destroyers and frigates with a greater offensive capability; clever tactics may close the missile gap, but a high explosive delivered first tends to settle the argument.

In many ways, I believe we should create a 21st century Australian version of the USN Spruance/Halsey model; Destroyer groups that operated against in the Pacific during WWII, wreaking havoc on Japanese merchant and naval shipping and denying to them freedom of the seas. Nearer home, perhaps we need to following in the footsteps of Hec Waller and the famed Scrap Iron Flotilla. We are already seeing the first footsteps in that direction, with COMMARTG and a small staff commanding the current East Asian Deployment embarked in our own destroyer, Hobart. This is a start, but as I have written previously in this publication, we have a long way to go.

How Will We Fight? - ASW


Damn the torpedoes, Full speed ahead!
- Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, (1801-1870)

Admiral Farragut’s sentiments may have served the Union Navy well during the US Civil War, but they would not survive close association with the modern submarine threat. Contemporary submarines bring a range of capabilities and effects that Farragut could only dream of. Take the modern SSN; it is a Terminator, it doesn’t feel fear and it doesn’t feel pain. It can go around the world underwater at 35 knots without surfacing, it can project power a thousand miles inland using LACM or devastate naval and merchant shipping with torpedoes or ASCM. Or it can lie off your coast, in your harbour or near your task group gathering your secrets. Even the suspicion of its presence can drastically alter your freedom of manoeuvre. Additionally, modern SSK and SSC, many equipped with AIP capability, are increasingly being fielded, and any or all these submarine threats would need to be neutralised if we are to achieve Sea Control.

The sinking of the Argentinian Cruiser Belgrano.
The sinking of the Argentinian Cruiser Belgrano.

ASW is hard and deadly. During the Falklands War the British lost four warships and two other vessels, to bombs and ASCM. Despite the loss of these ships, only a small percentage of their crews were casualties, less than 100 sailors. And their loss, while affecting the tactical conduct of the war, did not affect it operationally. Meanwhile, the sinking of the Argentinian Cruiser Belgrano by the SSN HMS Conqueror killed 323 sailors and, at a stroke, ceded Sea Control to the British.

The Argentinian Navy never left port again. Conversely, the Argentinian SSK San Luis remained undetected by the British during that campaign, despite significant ASW capabilities being deployed, and conducted attacks, which failed only due to weapons malfunctions, on two occasions against British units. And this was 37 years ago; submarine capability has improved exponentially since then, while the oceans have become no more transparent.

In the last 10 years or so the ADF has redefined its ASW doctrine to move away from traditional, purely tactical-level, force-on-force ASW operations towards defeating the submarine mission through integrated operations at the Theatre Force and Local level. This approach focuses on a range of activities designed to separate protected forces from the submarine threat, using Theatre ASW means to prosecute the submarine where it is, not where it is going, or where your forces are going, not where they are. In practical terms, this means ASW efforts are focused on establishing the submarine’s position from Theatre means, allowing informed decisions to be made about routing of forces away from the threat. In developing this construct, we have formed a Sea Combat Commander (SCC) capability within the MARTG staff that acts as the Force ASW Commander, designed to control the ASW activities of the task group, working in conjunction with the Theatre ASW Commander and appointed Local ASW Commanders to achieve the ASW mission. And yet, during exercise, we bring little of this construct into play. There is no Theatre ASW input, no management of the ASW battle across the JFAO using the correct C2 levels and inputs, testing the frictions, limits and capabilities of our ASW doctrine. Instead, we continue to drive onto submarines with our ships, turning our SCC into a superannuated SAU Commander. Damn the torpedoes indeed! While I understand that we need to train our ASW operators at the most basic level, we should be training only to fight our way out of a bad ASW situation in extremis, not in to one as a matter of planning. Such a course is always likely to end very badly for us.

In the same period, each of our ASW units - MPRA, submarines, surface combatants and helicopters - have received upgraded ASW weapons and sensors, with technology at the cutting edge. And yet, at least on the evidence of the last two Exercise OCEAN EXPLORER, at the tactical level we are no more capable at ASW than we ever were. In both those exercises, our P8, MH60-R and BSAPS-fitted ships were unable to find the submarine. Even worse, such was the unfounded confidence in these systems that a number of non-sub contacts were over-classified to a prosecution level, thus distracting ASW forces efforts while the real submarine was allowed tactical freedom.

As a deep ASW tragic, I have thought long and hard about these issues and have come to a number of (probably wrong) conclusions. Firstly, I believe that our approach to the process of ASW has changed in the last several years. Rather than the old-fashioned team-sport approach, that encouraged the sharing of weight of evidence to achieve considered classification, we have adopted the more directive approach traditionally used with AAW. Listen to an ASW SITREP, with its Submarine Threat Warnings and TADPOLE states, and you hear the echoes of the AAWC SITREP. It encourages only “Roger Out”. The cynic in me says it has changed only to make ASW easier for AWOs, but I think it is also because we have lost much of our traditional ASW knowing in favour of doing. Thus our ASW professionals lack the grounding and confidence to challenge and inform.

This is exacerbated by our approach to technology. Its improvement, and its operation by a generation that have grown up with reliable technology generally, means that there is an inflated confidence in what the technology is telling us. We believe what it tells us, rather than having the scepticism to challenge what it tells us by measuring it against what we know.

Lastly, there is a broader challenge in ASW proficiency that resonates through the ages; in peacetime it’s just all too difficult to create the professional environment in which ASW thrives. ASW training is hard; hard to organise, hard to conduct, hard to get excited about. Set against other priorities, the effort required to be good at ASW is disproportionate and we accept poor performance as the norm. For instance, the TASO of a ship risks far more by not having his SPARs completed on time than failing to find the submarine during the odd CASEX. This failure to engage sufficiently and proficiently was also evident in the inter-war years. At the start of WWII, the ASW lessons of WWI were lost and Allied shipping suffered massive losses from submarine warfare in the first 12 months. At which point those lessons were re-learned, new tactical thinking applied and the battle turned in favour of ASW forces.

I am not sure how we change all this, but we need to start. The next fight will not last 12 months and we will have no time to learn how to fight.

How Will We Fight? - Training and Exercises


The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.
- Muhammad Ali

In the paragraphs above, I have pointed to a few areas where I think we may need to change our approach to training and exercises so we can learn how we will fight. We devote significant resources to training and exercising our joint amphibious capability through the Joint Warfighting Series of exercises, but we need a similarly invested approach to our training in sea combat through the Ocean Series, now the Fleet Certification Period (FCP), which needs to be seen as the principal vehicle for generating our sea combat capability. The construct of that series has been a great achievement by our Force Generation Division (FGD) and it continues to develop every year, with a complex and broad-ranging scenario designed to test us across a wide swath of sea combat disciplines. But too often, it has to make do with insufficient resources, whether in time, live assets or EXCON construct and we end up with an exercise that is a mile wide and an inch deep. We need to bring in the right levels of C2 to fight in a JFAO in accordance with our doctrine; Maritime Component Command, Theatre and Force ASW Commands. If not live, then at least the right people need to HICON in the effect. The scenario needs to reflect the fight we will have, not a legacy construct with a contemporary threat. It needs to focus clearly on sea combat capability, offensive manoeuvre warfare and distributed lethality, not diluted by the introduction of other aspects of capability already exercised comprehensively elsewhere or used as a vehicle for the development of niche staff capability in non-sea combat roles.

Unit level collective training in core warfare disciplines should be conducted without involvement of command staffs. Those staffs need to be tested and assessed by more comprehensive CPX, an RAN equivalent of the USN FST-J series. Only then should the C2 be overlaid on the force and LIVEX conducted that fights according to our doctrine. As the planning for FCP 2020 progresses it is heartening to see many of these concepts being adopted by FGD, but they and the exercise itself need to be properly resourced if we are to realise the potential of our own Fleet Certification period in future.

How Will We Fight? - Resilience


Everyone has a plan; until they get punched in the mouth.
- Mike Tyson

There is much discussion about resilience as it applies to our Navy. We have essentially lived through decades of a peace; while we have engaged in conflict during that time that conflict has not caused us as a Navy to suffer great loss through maritime combat casualties. Our most likely fight will, and how we deal with that institutionally and individually will be a determinant in whether we win or lose. I don’t have any answers for how we prepare for this, but I will share with you my own experience of observing the journey to resilience through conflict.

HMS Sheffield.
HMS Sheffield.

When the Falklands War broke out, the Royal Navy was a peacetime navy, decades away from conflict. It came without warning for the majority of us, dropping out of a blue sky on a spring day, and we greeted the news with sheer otherworldly shock and disbelief. Even when the ships sailed for the islands, there was in no way a sense that our navy was going to fight. And then HMS Sheffield was struck by an Exocet ASCM and lost. It was incomprehensible! How could one of our great, grey homes, with their reassuring sense of permanence and security, where we worked, slept and lived, have gone? It was simply unimaginable to us. I have studied the Board of Inquiry into that sinking and it is hard not to walk away thinking that that it was unimaginable to her crew as well, that their sense of disbelief - and that of the whole task group - contributed to that ship being lost without defending herself.

HMS Glamorgan.
HMS Glamorgan (D19).

Fast forward a month or so, through the loss of five more ships and the damage of others. Glamorgan was coming off the gun line at dawn when she too was struck by an Exocet. She detected the incoming missile, manoeuvred to place it astern and engaged it with her SAM system. This was sufficient to prevent her being struck beam on, but the missile came in anyway, glancing off the flight deck and exploding in the hangar, killing 20 men and injuring many more. Glamorgan put out to sea, put out her fires, repaired her damage and committed her dead to the sea. That night she returned to the gun line.

This journey from disbelief to defiance was built on the graves of ships and the bodies of shipmates. It is how it has always been in war at sea and how it will be in our next fight. And that fight is coming; it may not happen this year or in ten years, but it is coming. And it too will come out of a blue sky on a perfect day. Many of our lazy, peacetime assumptions will be blown away and will be a shock not just to our people, but also to our Navy as an institution and our nation. How do we prepare for this? What do we do when we get punched in the mouth?

How Will We Fight?


What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight - it's the size of the fight in the dog.
- Dwight D Eisenhower

Pound-for-pound, our navy is one of the most capable in the region. But we need to know how we leverage that power, how we will fight. I believe we need to take a hard look at the fight ahead, conduct a critical analysis of the capabilities we will need for the fight, and prepare our platforms, processes and people to ready us for that fight. It will need a shift to an offensive mindset in everything we do and a re-focus on sea combat capability and the enablers that support it. We cannot afford to be a mile wide and an inch deep, a dollar short or a day late. When we go to fight, time will have run out and we will go as we are dressed, with the tools we have to hand. Let us not waste that time waiting for future capability to provide answers; let us invest every day in improving the core capabilities we have at every level while urgently developing those we need. Collectively and individually, we need to ask ourselves the question constantly “How will we fight?”

About the Author


Commander Swift is the Chief of Staff of the Australian Maritime Task Group.