Where Will All the Admirals Go?

By Rear Admiral W. J. Holland Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

Technocrats predict that within two decades the Navy can expect to have remote sensors directly linked to shooters; high-data-rate communications systems connecting fixed and mobile nodes in a worldwide network; data warehousing techniques that will permit the retrieval of information without deluging the seeker with unneeded steps or data; fusion engines that will resolve ambiguities in sensed data; computer-assisted decision aids that will serve as a basis for commanders' judgments; and more. While it is too soon to judge what the effects of these remarkable developments might be, we know enough now to speculate on how they will transform naval operations over the next 25 years.

Acknowledging that these technologies will indeed change the way the Navy operates is the first and most difficult step. Understanding must precede acceptance, and the efforts of Admiral Archie Clemins and Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski in educating their peers and juniors are remarkable in this regard. Such efforts are key to shortening the "unduly long interval" that Alfred Thayer Mahan observed is required to effect changes in tactics after changes in weapons have occurred. Information technology will play a major new role in naval operations—once we accept this, we can evaluate the opportunities these new technologies offer and determine how to organize to exploit them to best advantage.

It is not easy for an organization to accept that new technologies force changes in force structures, equipment designs, and operational processes. The Air Force may lead the other services in this first hard step. The Air Force Chief of Staff has declared that the end of the manned aircraft as a strike weapon is in sight. Even as it struggles to build the F-22, it is grasping the idea that this airplane probably will be the Air Force's last air superiority fighter and that its primary mission will be to protect the joint surveillance/target-attack radar system (JSTARS) reconnaissance aircraft. Coming fast on the heels of the realization that the B-2 is the last bomber that the United States will ever deploy, the cultural shock is hard but necessary as the Air Force shifts its long-range planning focus from air superiority to space. A similar acknowledgment of the effects of technological change lags far behind in a Navy not ready to consider that CVN-78 may be the last big-deck aircraft carrier.

Organizations often treat this kind of prophecy as heresy and try, if they can, to burn the proponents at the stake. But technological developments already are changing the face of the battle space. Most prominent and obvious are those tactical missions related to strike warfare. Every warship now has a role in strike warfare, formerly a monopoly held by manned carrier aircraft. At the same time, analysis suggests that the Navy's ability to operate in littoral waters is problematical and will become increasingly constricted because of the asymmetric threats from submarines, mines, and the combination of land-based long-range precision-guided munitions and geolocation devices. Rational discussion of these arguments—not likely to be heard in budget hearings, on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations, or at the officers' club—leads to conclusions that the fleet will be employed differently in the future than it has been in the past.

Commenting on naval operations in World War II, Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey said, "A fleet is like a hand of cards at poker or bridge. You don't see it as aces and kings and deuces. You see it as a hand, a unit. You see a fleet as a unit, not carriers, battleships and destroyers. You don't play individual cards, you play the hand." Unfortunately, professional literature, war games, and exercises suggest that this is not the way the fleet is "played" today. The center of attention is the carrier; the other ships in the battle group, as well as the rest of the fleet, are viewed as poor relations. Forces outside the battle group are ignored until it is time to land the landing force or refuel. Yet, as locations of interest multiply, the number of ships available declines, and the antiair warfare capability of potential opponents improves, these adjunct players are most likely to act as the prime movers. Tomahawks from ships and submarines on scene are the vanguard, not F/A-18s on a carrier hurrying into theater. Helicopters from an amphibious assault ship with a Marine expeditionary unit extend the force ashore, not the carrier air group.

Since the 1938 Fleet Exercises, the key commander afloat has been the commander of the carriers. But today, in cases of real action, he is irrelevant unless he also is the joint task group commander or at least the joint task group's naval component commander. The shortening of the hierarchy seen in other applications of information technology already is taking place in naval operations.

As information technology advances—and every indication is that most facets will, at a pace that yields improvements on a logarithmic scale—manned vehicles of every kind will become more vulnerable; precision-guided munitions will become more accurate; and in naval warfare, information available to the commander on board the carrier will be available to every echelon of command up to and including the National Command Authorities. Exercises in the Pacific already have shown that high capacity reach-back communications allow major segments of the commander's staff to stay in port as the commander gets under way, with no loss of effectiveness. In fact, the quality of information and analysis improved when specialists remained at their place of normal employment with established accesses to all source information and large resident data bases. It is a short leap from this situation to leaving the commander in port as well. If the numbered fleet commander has the dope, what value is added by the carrier group commander? If the unified commander-in-chief knows and can react, what is the value added by the numbered fleet commander? If the National Command Authorities and Joint Chiefs of Staff know, what value is added by the theater commander?

This last idea invokes horror in the hearts of most warriors, who view this development as enabling some political neophyte or dithering academic transplanted to the National Security Council, even some White House intern, to order foolish actions that will cost lives, prolong conflict, or waste time. Yet the possibility of this problem exists today. In addition, history shows that the tactical incompetence of distant commanders can be characteristic of generals as well as politicians. Nonetheless, war games demonstrate that the National Command Authorities move to tightly control the forces engaged as crisis moves to conflict.

Ambassador Richard Armitage holds that the chain of command has to be shortened because policymakers today use the same methods to reach decisions as they did before the information age, rarely will be forehanded, and will demand rapid execution once the decision has been made. Rather than ignore the issues involved, those in the national command system need to work out how such problems should be handled before they arise in situations of stress.

On the other hand, in the eyes of Admiral Carl A. H. Trost, then Chief of Naval Operations, the true value of the Joint Operational Tactical System, the precursor to the Global Command and Control System, and its adjunct planning and information components was the benefit to lower echelons of permitting every level of command to better understand the intentions of the seniors. An even more subtle benefit is avoiding the trap described by Vice Admiral Cebrowski:

Being able to obtain information without asking questions becomes important. We don't want to change the commander's intent or the mission focus by asking the wrong question at the wrong time.

It is the understanding gained in almost collegial planning processes coupled with the changes in weapon distribution that will force changes in fleet organizational structures, force usage, and operational processes. Deployment of individual ships rather than task groups is limited today by logistics: indeed, it is evident that Aegis cruisers cannot be far from the carrier, not because the carrier needs protection, but because the carrier has the fuel. Yet as the need for ships in different places multiplies and the number of carriers remains fixed, as surface ship munitions become more and more effective as strike weapons, the deployment of surface ships inevitably will begin to resemble that of submarines—independent units widely dispersed coupled to the fleet or theater commands through information technologies.

Remote sensors, direct links, and fusion engines will allow individual combat platforms to sense much of the immediate battlespace without intermediaries. The common operating picture of the Global Command and Control System now permits every level capable of high-capacity data reception to display friendly and discovered enemy position and force information. When the situational picture is displayed throughout the Department of Defense, the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the theater commander-in-chief all will see the position of any naval platform and many land-based units at the same time as the commanders on the scene. The immense value of this common display is a quantum leap in mutual understanding. From this common information base, and the cooperative planning it enables, the orders emanating at every level should be clearer to those below and consistent with those above. When they are not, the opportunity for questioning and clarification becomes easier than ever before.

The fog of war always will be present, but these and such similar arrangements as real-time logistics dispositions and better access to intelligence data go far to reducing the amount of disarray and confusion that occurs when a plan comes into contact with the enemy. To take full advantage of what Admiral William Owens described as "the synergism among advanced communications and surveillance, computer-aided command and control, stealth and precision weapons," the systems must be matched by processes, doctrine, training, and managerial arrangements that give these technological advances operational potency.

This common understanding will become more important as deployed forces are dispersed and must react quickly to fait accompli actions in areas and situations where action was not anticipated and where advance plans do not exist. Forces of every kind will have to be capable of operating independently. Theater ballistic missile defense is an example of a mission in which the carrier—as well as its embarked carrier group command and staff—is irrelevant. In the future, it is reasonable to expect that more and more strike warfare missions will be assigned to non-carrier warships, surface and submarine. As surface ships become directly linked to remote sensors, e.g., Aegis to space-based infrared sensors, not only is their effectiveness enhanced but the need for echelons of command between the ship and the theater commander decreases.

Those who reject these predictions do so on the basis that the commander must be on the battlefield to be a part of it. Historical evidence suggests that such an argument for the Army or Marine Corps is very strong. For the Navy, however, major campaigns have been fought with widely dispersed forces commanded throughout from fixed headquarters ashore. Evidence from commercial organizations suggests that this style of command and control will become the model for the future, replacing the deployed group commanders and their staffs afloat in their carriers and flagships.

In the Deming process models, the front-line worker is always a key to improving the process. Adopting that view in the battlespace and under the shortened lines of authority predicted above, that individual is the commander of a unit in contact with the enemy. Here the Navy has a marked advantage over other services because that key individual generally is the commanding officer of the ship or mission commander of a plane or group of planes. These are relatively senior, experienced persons compared with their counterparts in the Army and Marine Corps, who may well be officers in their first assignments.

If this view holds true, the importance of the commanding officer increases even beyond that imagined in the 19th century. Ships already are widely dispersed and semi-autonomous. For example, the Cooperative Engagement Capability is a semi-automatic function because the speed-distance relationship precludes voice or message communications between participants or time for staff planning. In the future, there will be occasions when individual commanding officers will be given direction by the National Command Authorities. And even before then, members of the military command hierarchy will skip echelons to give orders direct to forces. With modern communications, the common operational picture, and cooperative planning tools, such "skip echelon" techniques are not just available but will be required to react in a timely fashion to crises arising in remote areas.

Under the pressure of real-time television news, the speed of response now expected no longer allows appreciable time to plan and consult. Political demands for action and information will not permit the classic staff action model to function. Quick cooperative planning may be the best we can hope for. In this situation, the middle levels, e.g., unified commanders-in-chief and numbered fleet commanders, and/or battle group commanders, are likely to be ignored or bypassed. The value added by an intermediate level of command will have to be obvious for that command to be a participant in a high-visibility operation. In many cases in the past 20 years, that value added has been marginal or even negative.

"Speculating about the long-term future can help us avoid making incorrect size and structure decisions today. We should do it with an imagination and a willingness to challenge basic assumptions." Although the future can be glimpsed only dimly, it is apparent that network-centric warfare will link the two key points in a military organization—the commander and the commanded—more closely than ever before. The command of operations will migrate higher in the hierarchical order and the commanded as low as possible, though in the Navy's case it is hard to see this as below the commanding officer of an individual ship or plane.

As a opening generalization then, one outcome of information technology improvements in the Navy will be to make the commanding officer billet the most important in most of tomorrow's actions and battle group commander the most superfluous. A significant question that arises from this change is what to do with the rear admirals. They will not go easily, but in the end—if the full impact of information technologies is to be realized—this grade will not be represented among the officers in command on the scene.

The Navy could begin now to migrate its command structures and personnel policies to ones that are likely to be used in the future. The chief aim must be to make commanding officers competent in the technical aspects of their ships and the networks that control them, more intellectually agile, and able to operate with less direction than at any time in the past. If the deployed command in the l9th century made a gaffe or failed to "operate in the best interest of the Queen," months might elapse before such a failure would be noticed, and usually by then the affair was of little significance. In the Navy of the future, a mistake in executing national direction tonight will be a Cable News Network headline before tomorrow.

In an era of continuing operational crises and resource restrictions, it is not easy to think of the future. Many—indeed most—must just "shoot the wolf closest to the sled." But those who can need to prepare themselves and the Navy so that the next generation will wield a sword as sharp, as quick, and as lethal as that handed to this generation. More than any other single facet, information technologies will change the way wars are conducted. Steaming as before will not get the ship ready for those changes.

Admiral Holland served most of his 32 years of naval service in submarines. He was president of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s Educational Foundation for 11 years.


Rear Admiral Holland has been a contributor to Proceedings

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