How the U.S. Navy Forgot to Fight

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jesus Sepulveda Torres/Released)180921-M-UG171-1002
October 1, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: U.S. NavyStrategyTrainingReformCIMSEC

How the U.S. Navy Forgot to Fight

The U.S. Navy is suffering from self-inflicted strategic dysfunction across the breadth of its enterprise.

This limits the freedom to play an accurate opposition force. Capt. Rielage remarked that Red teams are most often constrained and used to only “perform a specific function to facilitate an event” (such as an individual training certification event) rather than behave like a thinking adversary.

Many naval platforms are multi-domain in nature, with the ability to attack targets in the air, on the ocean, and beneath the surface. Cross-domain fires are the norm in war at sea, such as how a submarine can fire missiles at a ship from underwater. Sinking a modern warship is at least a matter of knowing how to fight targets on the surface and in the air at the same time, simply because ships can fire missiles at each other. Naval warfare involves sensors and weapons that can reach out to hundreds of miles from a single ship. The scale of this multi-domain battlespace can be enormous while containing numerous types of threats. Through this complexity war at sea can be filled with an incredible scope of possibilities and combinations. Even in an era absent great power competition rogue regimes like Iran still field multi-domain capabilities such as submarines and anti-ship missiles. Practicing only one skillset at a time using cannon fodder opposition forces that almost never win barely scratches the surface of war, yet this is exactly how the U.S. Navy has been training its strike groups for years.

In recent decades it appears the Navy did not have a true high-end threat exercise until Admiral Swift instituted the Fleet Problem exercises two years ago. It must be recognized that because the Fleet Problems are so new they still may not accurately represent real war. Instead, they simply set and combine the basic conditions to present a meaningful challenge to train for the high-end fight.

The Fleet Problems are large-scale, long-duration, and open-ended events. Large-scale, in that the unit being tested can be a strike group or larger; long duration, in that the exercise is at least several days long instead of less than 24 hours; open-ended, in that they give wide latitude to the troops involved rather than narrowly constraining them to execute proscribed methods. Perhaps most critically, the Fleet Problems include an opposition force that is capable of inflicting painful losses. They also force the Navy to exercise multiple warfighting areas in combination rather than one at a time, which was the standard design for the Composite Unit Training Exercise (COMPTUEX) that was considered the peak of high-end sea control training in every deploying strike group’s workup cycle. The novelty of the Fleet Problems suggests the Navy’s overseas exercises on deployment were not much better. While these individual training conditions are not totally unprecedented in the Navy the Fleet Problems appear to be the first events in many years to effectively combine them on a large scale.

Before the Fleet Problems the Navy’s training system stood in stark contrast to the exercise programs of other branches. Both the Army and the Air Force are keenly aware of the need to use dedicated and capable opposition forces to hammer warfighting competence into their units through high-end threat training. Hundreds of aircraft participate annually in the Air Force’s Red Flag exercise where opposing aggressor squadrons often impose high cost. Nearly a third of the Army’s brigades rotate every year through the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin where Army units are regularly challenged by dedicated opposition forces. The table below shows how Army Brigade Combat Teams do not always score high kill ratios at the NTC.

The National Training Center and Red Flag exercises have existed for decades and are among the highest priorities for their respective military branches. Evolving real-world threats frequently combine with new technology to introduce fresh challenges into these capstone training events. Yet in spite of everything that was changing about the Navy’s technology and advances being made by foreign competitors the Navy’s premier pre-deployment exercise stagnated. Admiral Phil Davidson suggested, “we’ve made more changes during the last 18 months to COMPTUEX than in the last 18 years.”

The problem of military training becoming so scripted that victory is assured is not unprecedented. The Marines also have some history with this issue. In 1990, Marine William Bradley blasted the Corps for unrealistic training, questioning exercises that “smack of ‘zero defect’ artificiality,” and charging “who among us can say he has participated in major exercises where ‘success’ was not artificially preordained?” More recent writing suggests that opposing forces in the Marine Corps have been often made to simply “die in place.”

Scripted training might come from some organizational pathology born from a zero-defect culture, a failure to evolve target practice into something that resembles dynamic battle, or some other combination of complacence and lack of imagination. What is certain is that it bears little resemblance to the sort of wars the military of a superpower can be asked to fight.

The Navy has made moves in the right direction only recently though much of Navy training probably remains a heavily scripted affair. Truly difficult exercising for the high-end fight at the strike group level has begun with the advent of the Fleet Problems. COMPTUEX is becoming more challenging, although through morevirtual means. Two years ago SMWDC instituted a new training event called Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) that finally gives the surface fleet its own integrated training phase prior to joining capital ships for larger events in the workup cycle.

Given how new they are however the extent to which the Navy will sustain and make the most of these activities remains unclear. What is certain is that they are taking place within a context and a culture shaped by a generation of neglect. As Admiral Swift succinctly put it, “There is no classroom instruction and little doctrine or guidance for fighting a fleet.”

The Structure of U.S. Navy Training

“Peacetime maneuvers are a feeble substitute for the real thing; but even they can give an army an advantage over others whose training is confined to routine, mechanical drill.” –Carl von Clausewitz,On War.

After deploying beyond its means for years the Navy was facing unsustainable growth in maintenance backlogs, yet rising demand for naval power meant the Navy would hardly budge on delaying deployments. As ships went through their usual phases within the workup cycle to prepare for deployment something had to give as pressure built from both sides. Navy leadership characterized the situation as a “rise in operational demand, maintenance availabilities going long, and training getting squeezed in the middle.” According to Navy officials cutting weeks of training became the preferred remedy to get ships out on time.

Cutting training time is not necessarily wrong however because training could go on forever. Even with cuts ships still have months of time devoted to training within the workup cycle and more opportunities when deployed. The Navy cannot blame operational demand or maintenance backlogs alone for compressed training. Instead, it is the fault of poor decision-making on how to structure the training process and assume risk.

Sailors feel constantly rushed while training, especially within the workup cycle, because they are being forced to do hundreds of training events in order to satisfy an impossible number of requirements that only seem to grow. As training and certification events grew more numerous they were forced to become more shallow because they were stuffed into fixed or even shrinking timeframes. As the Naval Studies Board lamented, “There are no empty blocks on the exercise and training schedules.”

Time pressures encouraged scripted events because training can be passed more quickly. Hard training involves repeat attempts after failure, a larger selection of open-ended scenarios, and a thorough after-action review process. All of these things cost time. Scripting can help make time for more events and cut corners when needed. Scripted training became an important means to help Sailors stay on schedule in a system that was overburdened with too many requirements.

These excessive requirements come from a desire to cover too many bases. A warship, being an advanced machine, can experience technical failure and take damage in numerous ways. Ships can also be employed in a wide range of missions. Training to manage the degradation of a ship and the complexity of naval warfighting is an incredibly difficult task. However, it is impossible to train to every kind of scenario or prevent every kind of failure. A training system represents calculated risk where strong proficiency in some areas must come at the expense of skill in many others.

An example of poor risk calculation with respect to tactical training can be seen in the submarine force where according to LT Jeff Vandenengel:

“…virtually every officer on board can explain complex engineering principles, draw diagrams of entire reactor systems, and have conducted countless complex engineering-casualty drills, but few to no simulated attacks on an enemy warship. So much time, energy, and effort is spent on engineering issues that the study, development, and practice with tactical systems and techniques are often treated like afterthoughts.”