War at Sea: How to Win (And Lose) a Littoral Battle Royal

Naval war isn’t a math problem.

A new article from Wayne Hughes is a treat for anyone in naval geekdom. Captain Hughes literally wrote the book on U.S. Navy fleet tactics and coastal combat; I still schlep around my dog-eared copy of Fleet Tactics from my midshipman days in the 1980s. It keeps good company with tracts from Clausewitz, Corbett and the boys.

But last month over at USNI Blog, Hughes and a brace of Naval Postgraduate School colleagues proposed the concept of “mesh networks.” It refers to a dispersed yet networked ships, planes, weapons, and sensors that are able to seize the initiative from regional adversaries, maneuver in both physical and cyberspace, and prevail in near-shore combat. The whole thing is worth a read.

It’s a compelling read in many respects. Hughes and his coauthors accentuate how complex and menacing offshore waters and skies can be. For instance, we tend to evaluate weapons in large part by their firing range. Outrange a foe and you acquire a significant tactical edge. Similar to boxing, in sea fights, the pugilist with greatest range can wallop his opponent before he has the chance to strike back. The perpetrator inflicts damage without absorbing any himself.

But range is mainly an asset for open-ocean battle. The open sea resembles a vast, featureless plain; weapons can reach their full potential there. Ships and planes can pound away from their maximum firing ranges. Littoral combat, by contrast, compacts the distances at which battle takes place. You have to get close to shore to strike inland, land troops, or blockade enemy harbors.

To continue the boxing analogy, it is similar to forcing boxers to fight in the clinch rather than dancing around the ring. The fight transpires within weapons range of an enemy who’s fighting on his own ground, with all of his manpower and armaments close to hand. Compressing the theater, then, attenuates any range advantage U.S. forces may enjoy, or nullifies it altogether.

And if that’s not bad enough, inshore combat constricts the time available to defend against incoming rounds. Dexterity is essential when forced to cope with myriad challenges. Scattering and moving sensors and “shooters” around the theater constitutes one way to confound foes—provided U.S. forces can still mass firepower at the decisive place on the map at the decisive time. Hence the concept of nimble, “networked” forces. Despite the concept’s virtues, it feels incomplete and abstract, possibly even otherworldly.

That’s because it slights the human dimension of sea combat—a hazardous thing to do when contemplating how to wage war, an intensely human enterprise. My advice is to look not to a U.S. Navy admiral but to a U.S. Air Force colonel for insight into how to prosecute littoral combat. Let’s keep the human in human competition—enriching mesh-network tactics.

The coauthors make the late Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski’s model of decision-making their own, using it to explore the potential of offshore networks. Cebrowski describes tactics as a three-phase cycle. Sensing represents the first phase. Combatants gather and exchange data about their surroundings. They next decide what arms and tactics to deploy within those surroundings. And then they act on the decision, with the aim of getting off the first effective shot. Sense, decide, act. It makes sense on the surface, but the trouble is that this approach is too mechanical. It makes little allowance for the messiness that is human interaction in a competitive environment.

Cebrowski implies that in combat you can plug data into an algorithm, churn out an answer, and do what the algorithm says. Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot and self-made strategist, interjects a fourth element into the decision cycle. The tactical surroundings, says Boyd, are constantly in flux. It’s not enough to collect information about the setting. It’s about orienting oneself to the setting before making a decision and acting.

For Boyd, then, the cycle goes observe, orient, decide, act—OODA. Fail to orient to the surroundings and you are disoriented, estranged from the reality around you. Losing touch with reality represents a dangerous situation at the best of times—but especially in combat. The victor, oftentimes, is the combatant best in tune with the situation. So orienting is important.

How do you do it? It’s a process of assimilating and analyzing new information that comes in from sensors and other sources. Sounds like Cebrowski’s decide function. But Boyd also maintains that past experience shapes how combatants adapt to their surroundings. So do cultural traditions. So does “genetic heritage.” Boyd even factors in the biological basis of human cognition.