Ring of Fire or Ring of Smoke?

By F. J. West, Jr.

Firepower Sufficiency

Naval netcentric should not be evaluated by easy missions, such as firing a few dozen cruise missiles at Iraq or Bosnia; rather, the real test is performance in heavy, sustained combat. In operational maneuver from the sea (OMFTS), applying the netcentric ring of fire means sea-based fires—one operations center will receive and apportion all calls for fire. A recent Proceedings article, for example, postulated that ROF could answer 32 such calls in five minutes. 1

Digital communications do permit fire-support centers at all levels to monitor fire requests simultaneously under silence as consent, while the ROF assigns weapons. Budget trends, however, threaten to transform the ring of fire into a ring of smoke. When every squad has a global positioning system receiver and long-range communications—an investment of $10,000 per squad—netcentric will indeed result in a dramatic increase in calls for fire. The rub lies in the response. Although the goal is to put rounds on target in less than 3 minutes, it currently takes 8 to 20. Many targets require adjustments or repeated fires. The result is that fires are not shifted rapidly from one mission to another. Hence, a dozen surface combatants and two carriers would be needed to support 32 near-simultaneous fire missions—a large fraction of the Navy to support a small fraction of the Marine Corps.

Current defense plans include a five-inch extended-range guided munition (ERGM) gun on about 50 cruisers and destroyers over the next decade. 2 That is only a small down payment on the firepower needed. At Tinian in 1943, for example, 7,500 rounds were fired in a feint in support of three rifle companies. 3 In Vietnam, in one six-hour raid, a Marine company required 5,000 rounds. More than 75% of all fire missions were artillery; in heavy fighting near the demilitarized zone, the average number of unplanned calls for fire was one per 70 minutes per battalion, and there were on-call about 16 tubes per Marine battalion. Hence, there was a rough balance between calls for fire and firing assets. 4

Today, there are about six artillery tubes per Marine infantry battalion. On the netcentric battlefield, a battalion will have calls for fire not from three companies but from 10 to 30 squads. In the Hunter Warrior Advanced Warfare Experiment in March 1997, the combat operations center received 120 fire mission tracks a day, and chose to fire 50 missions a day. By historical standards, there will be an additional 8 planned (battlefield shaping) fire missions per hour. The result is a demand per engaged battalion for 10 missions per hour and 1,000 to 2,000 rounds per day. Projected DDG storage capacity is 250 ERGMs and 200 standard ammunition equivalents. 5

The Marines require high-volume area fires during OMFTS. 6 Two surface combatants with no down time might support a Marine expeditionary unit in sustained combat, if resupply at sea were constant and calls for fire were evenly spaced. The problem is that battles are not sequenced; they are episodic, with calls for fire peaking at unpredictable times.

First-round hits will remain problematic because of enemy dispersion and concealment. Accuracy via the ERGM will reduce volume, but perhaps not to a large extent. Times of flight may be four or more minutes; after the first salvo, the enemy has warning to dig in or move. Because most missions will require subsequent adjustments between the forward observer and the firing platform, netcentric will not in many cases hasten the time to actual rounds on target. Usually, a forward observer does not know the real size of a target and is calling for area fires: he knows the enemy is in the next treeline, not behind which tree. He seeks area volume to rip apart the treeline.

Volume requires large magazines and many tubes. For this reason, the Marines consistently add ground-based fires when they discuss OMFTS fire support. 7 But whether short-range ground fires (artillery) would report back through ROF for assignment is problematic; after all, they can be assigned only inside their range fan, most likely in direct support of certain units. They probably will fire under silence as consent. ROF will monitor and may deconflict, but it is not apparent how it adds much value.

A netcentric ring of fire is necessary because we lack the platforms for direct support, but it is hyperbole to assert that increased C 3 I compensates for decreased mass. This implies that netcentric retains U.S. warfighting superiority, despite a 40% decrease in naval resources. This assertion is comforting, but it is not logical.

We still kill with firepower, not electrons, and battle data suggest that there are limits to reducing firepower as information sensors are increased. For example, in Operation Meade River in 1969, in the fourth year of fighting the same ten-kilometer grid, the 7th Marines called in 80,000 pounds of high explosives a day. As a result of "information superiority," each enemy battalion was "pinpointed" within a thousand-meter grid—but the terrain still necessitated prodigious barrage firepower.

The U.S. military is like a professional football team whose budget has been cut. It no longer can afford 300-pound linemen, so it drafts 200-pound linemen, with the public relations "spin" that it is replacing mass with speed. That team should remember Daymon Runyon: "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—but that's the way to bet."

Netcentric, through precise position location and reliable long-range communications, will so increase the opportunities for observed fires that we will face a major imbalance between supply and demand, between sea-based fires and calls for fire. Artillery units are sized to support maneuver battalions; the Navy does not size fire support by any comparable principle. Given projected force structure, the math of ships and munitions does not add up if the scenario is heavy, sustained combat.

One alternative is to decrease preplanned fire missions. But that will be a hard sell, especially to the maneuver units asked to attack with less prep fires.

Another alternative is for naval air to play a larger role on the battlefield. Air controlled by ground units takes away from deep strike and other missions; however, so pronounced has been the shift in force structure that DoD now has more fighter-bomber aircraft than infantry squads. Even the Marines insist that only naval aviators be qualified to call in air strikes; there are at most three officers in a battalion so qualified. This bottleneck, which in civilian terms would be called a union problem, denies the premise of the ring of fire that any platform will be used to achieve effects, given target inputs from any source.

Dynamic Decision-Making Speed

As more aviation is dedicated to a battlefield role, deconfliction will become a larger problem. In practicing suppression of enemy air defenses, artillery or naval guns are turned off before each aircraft run. This means moments of silence across extensive sectors during which the enemy can dig in or scurry away. Computers cannot yet substitute for the experienced air controller in determining when, where, and for how long to suspend other fires during the run of attack aircraft. How to maintain operations tempo across the battlefield while providing safe air corridors is an art form, a management task for specialists.

Information facilitates, but does not substitute for, control. Imagine a large battlefield with several flights of F/A-18s aloft, U2s and unmanned aerial vehicles at various altitudes, attack helicopters and MV-22s en route, mine countermeasures helicopters near the beach, incoming enemy missiles, naval guns waiting to fire, and ten simultaneous calls for fire. We used to manage that battlefield by slicing it into narrow geographic sectors, delineated by gunfire range limits. Some now say extended ranges of naval fires have made obsolete sectoring and separate fire-control centers. It is not self-evident why this is so; aircraft, for example, have had extended range for decades. Nor has anyone put forward the management mechanism to replace sectors. In the end, span of control will set practical geographic range limits on ROF.

To take advantage of rapid information, the netcentric decision maker must act before the adversary adapts or moves. We are talking seconds to minutes. We do not train to do that. War games are planning exercises, where officers say what they would do, but they do not make rapid-fire decisions.

The Marines have held decision-making war games with futures traders, who make 30 high-stakes decisions in an hour. 8 In the games, the traders have shown that they are fast, disciplined, and follow intuitive quantitative strategies. Though all are highly qualified, the traders say it takes about two years days in the trading pits—before a trader is moderately experienced. About 50% wash out. Despite impressive credentials, they lack the "right stuff" for immediate, pressure-filled decision making.

Similarly, the distinguishing characteristic of netcentric is the opportunity to make decisions before the enemy reacts. Yet there is no certification in decision-making skill before being assigned to the netcentric ring of fire or combat operations center. Supposedly, anyone of the proper rank and military occupational specialty can step into a joint task force combat operations center, discern patterns in chaos, sense the tempo of the battlefield, and immediately make decision after decision to allocate fires. The ability to detect patterns—to see the hidden face in the picture—will be at a premium. Traders call this "sensing the market." Not all traders can do this; and not all battle captains can do this.

ROF places sea-based fires in general support for offensive, opportunistic maneuver warfare. Calls for fire are to be text-based for digital entry on computer screens. Multiservice joint staffs, strangers to those calling for fires, make immediate, pressure-filled decisions to allocate or withhold weapons. It is not evident that an ROF staff would produce coherent decisions under the tumult of a real-time war game, let alone real combat. There must be standards for certification in deciding netcentric fires.

Command and Control

Direct support artillery, being short-range, could fire only in its sector, making moot decisions to shift fires from one sector to another. A netcentric ROF with long range, on the other hand, faces the problem of which firefight receives which fires. Time-urgent calls for fire will be voice, as will most fire adjustments. When a unit urgently needs fires or has lucrative targets because the enemy is moving, precisely then is the battle most hectic and the radio calls of the most vulnerable units the loudest. The ROF ops center must set priorities on the fly and not place beleaguered units in a queue. It must know when it adds no value and should then tell the engaged unit to shift to the frequency of the supporting fire platform and get off the net. We have not determined how many ROF combat operations centers we need per fighting unit under netcentric principles, or what that will cost. We do not want to save money by overstressing the span of control and inadvertently creating waiting lines in the midst of firefights.

The types of battlefields where long-range fire control works best are of least interest to naval netcentric warfare. The U.S. way of war excels at open terrain (all-source intelligence shines in such an environment) versus mounted units (platforms are the easiest prey for our weapons' sensors). Computer simulations that replicate Desert Storm provide a netcentric combat operations center with the intelligence feeds, clear communications, and flat terrain to apply ROF optimally. Emphasis is placed on feeds from national assets and airborne photography, as well as reports from ground units. The inference is that all these intelligence feeds contribute equally to building the common operating picture.

In Hunter Warrior, the open desert enabled the combat operations center to receive accurate, clear reports from aircraft and teams on the ground. It could reasonably claim to have a better tactical picture than the teams on the ground and so could decide which targets to engage when. That state of affairs, however, is the exception.

The more challenging scenario is when a naval task force is pitted against a dismounted enemy in close terrain—Bosnia kinds of cases, with dispersed infantry on the move, buildings, ravines, forests, civilians, etc. When targets are obscure, the surest way to sense the battlefield is to be on it. The vast majority of specific targets will be generated by ground units, not by airborne intelligence feeds. The combat operations center at sea will be the second, not the first, to know what is going on. An experienced commander in the sea-based combat operations center will recognize that his prebattle priority of fires (against mobile air defenses, C 3 , etc.) may be irrelevant once the battle is joined, because most actual calls for fire will identify fleeting, amorphous targets. He will not try to overcontrol fire missions from 150 miles away. He will support the units on the battlefield and not assume that he knows better than they what is the immediate threat.

The Marines have endorsed a "single, integrated, sea-based C2 system" for fires. 9 In their view, no sensible commander would split operational control between fires and maneuvering units; one person will command both. If the ROF is in support of Marines in combat on land, and if unity of command is to be preserved, then the Navy may not be in command of the fires.

The communications architecture and resource allocation of netcentric ROF will be driven by the operational vision. Many believe that the information displays and data pathways related to the selection of weapon systems should be resident in command centers, but not be available to the teams engaged against the enemy. Others believe this centralized system will fail, and that the teams must have access to that information. Often they will know best which system will work against which target.

But no one wants to be a potted plant, and senior commanders have both the incentive and now the netcentric tools to centralize battle decisions. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as one understands the concept of risk-reward. The fewer the decision points, the less the hedge against a wrong decision. So there should be a proportionately higher reward for the higher risk of centralized decision making.

The defense centralizes fires through general support if the enemy has the initiative and if the defender must shift fires reactively. Conversely, on the offense, fires should be decentralized to support the initiatives of subordinate commanders who have a better, more immediate sense of the battle. When this principle is violated, risk increases. In Desert Storm, General Colin Powell said the Republican Guard would be cut off and destroyed. Instead, it escaped. Why? Because initiative was controlled from the top. The Marines were halted in place when they advanced too fast; the 101st Division was ordered not to cut off Basra; VII Corps advanced according to a timetable enforced from the top. Centralized decision making on the offense stifled the initiative of the commanders with a direct sense of the battle.

In netcentric C 3 , who is deciding what? Is ROF supporting or supported? Some believe netcentric and more information further empower Marine expeditionary unit, amphibious task force, and joint task force commanders and their staffs; others agree—and it concerns them, because senior staffs are not the real players on the battlefield. Vice Admiral Alexander Krekich recently observed that "a commander-in-chief could sit on board a ship and direct the action—perhaps a scary thought." 10 Who makes what level of netcentric decision has yet to be worked out. To sidestep it until the communications architectures are authorized and funded is to determine the issue without addressing it.

This doesn't mean that we reject netcentric; it does mean that we must be aware of human incentives to control what we can. To ensure that the needs of the supported units are understood, the Marines have a simple solution: "Operational control (of the single-system fire support) must rest with the landing force commander once the attack has commenced." 11 This seems operationally sensible. To do otherwise would split fires from maneuver. It is difficult to project a Navy officer as the direct commander of a land force that must rely equally on maneuver on the ground and fires allocated from the command ship. True, if the ROF combat operations center also controls theater missile defense, air defense, etc., then the battle has multiple, nonground dimensions. But for this situation, there is an established procedure: designate control under the main effort, rather than under supporting efforts.

Because the Navy must allocate resources to a C 3 architecture, the debate about C 3 must occur now. The stress test for ROF is when Marines are in combat. The unit ignored in C 3 resources is the squad. Yet the squad is the targeting linchpin that makes netcentric such a powerful concept. Hunter Warrior employed unmanned aerial vehicles, Jaeger Air, JSTARS, Cast Eyes, ELINT, etc.; but it was the squads that accounted for more than 50% of all calls for fire in open terrain. In close terrain or in urban warfare, the percentage would be higher.

Squads are integral to the rationale for a netcentric ROF. DoD resource analyses are wrong-headed when a squad averages five targets per day, as in Hunter Warrior, yet is capitalized at a fraction of the cost of one weapon that we hope will hit one of those targets. If netcentric is seamless, it will result in a shift in budgetary advocacy. Naval C 3 will not necessarily stress, say, large bandwidth for joint task force videoconferencing; reliable communications to squads will emerge as a higher priority, urged by unlikely suspects. When an admiral argues for funding for a squad, netcentric ROF will be truly seamless.

Mr. West served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration. Currently president of GAMA Corporation, he has conducted extensive gaming on naval fire support. A Marine officer in Vietnam, he was a member of the first "Stingray" patrol-recon teams that called in air, naval guns, and artillery.

   1. LCdr. Ross Mitchell, USN, "Ring of Fire," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , November 1997, p. 54. back to article
   2. Maj. Tracy Ralphs, USAR, "The Troops Ashore Deserve Better Fire Support," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , June 1998, p. 69.
back to article
   3. William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), p. 277. back to article
   4. Jack Shulimson, LCol. Leonard A. Blasiol, USMC, Charles R. Smith, and Capt. David A. Dawson, USMC, "The U.S. Marines in Vietnam, 1968," HQMC , Washington, D.C., 1997, pp. 533-52. back to article
   5. Ralphs, p. 69. back to article
   6. LGen. John E. Rhodes, USMC, "A Concert for Advanced Expeditionary Fire Support," Marine Corps Association , Quantico, VA, April 1998, p. A-2. back to article
   7. Rhodes, p. A-1. back to article
   8. "Report of Wargame Series with Futures Traders," GAMA Corporation, Falls Church, VA, May 1997, p. 7. back to article
   9. Rhodes, p. A-2. back to article
  10. VAdm. Alexander Krekich, USN, letterb on"Network-Centric Warfare," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , May 1998, p. 16. back to article
  11. Rhodes, p. A-2. back to article




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