The Answer Is the Carrier Strike Group . . . Now, What Was the Question?

By Captain Victor G. Addison Jr., U.S. Navy

A Question of Supply ?

Since global contentment is not one of the likely trends that the JOE forcasts, and isolationism has not been an option for the United States since the 1930s, future joint-force commanders will require a sophisticated "toolbox" to prevent, limit, and win wars. The Navy currently supplies hubs in the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf with rotational naval forces, maintains additional forward-deployed naval forces in Guam and Japan, and meets other theater requirements on an as-needed basis. According to OPNAV policy, the baseline menu of major ship group options available to geographic combatant commands nominally consists of the following:

  • Carrier Strike Group (CSG) : One aircraft carrier, five surface combatants, and one submarine.


  • Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) : One amphibious assault ship, one amphibious transport dock ship, and one amphibious dock-landing ship.


  • Surface Action Group (SAG) : Minimum of two surface combatants.

A CSG deploys with a carrier air wing plus rotary-wing assets and is equipped to conduct sustained maritime power-projection, combat, and other missions. ARGs typically include a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) plus various air, amphibious, and logistics capabilities to conduct a full array of sea-based combat, security, and crisis-response missions. SAGs can be organized to conduct specific missions including sea control, maritime ballistic-missile defense, and maritime security. In addition to these ship groups, independent deployers such as fast-attack submarines can also be used for certain missions. Although it is not considered a major ship group option, the Global Fleet Station (GFS) concept was introduced in 2007 primarily to enhance partnerships. A GFS combines U.S. Navy ships with other government and non-government assets in a persistent sea base.

The supply of naval forces available to meet theater requirements in a specific period of time is a function of force structure (our inventory of battle-force ships), force posture (the location of the ships), the deployment construct (the organization and deployment of the Fleet), operational availability (the readiness level required to get under way and conduct operations), and many other factors, including transit time and weather. The Navy meets the most urgent requirements with a readiness construct, the Fleet Response Plan, that can surge a total of six "major combat-operation (MCO)-ready" CSGs within 30 days of notification and an additional CSG within 90 days of notification.

...and Demand

The current global force management (GFM) process is based on specific geographic combatant command requests for forces (RFF) and, for more enduring requirements, rotational forces. Once the Secretary of Defense approves them, the requests provide the basis for the Navy's "demand signal" when translated into deployment orders. Although the actual GFM process also includes the Joint Staff and, for conventional forces, U.S. Joint Forces Command, it will be completely short-circuited by a conversation such as the following imaginary one between the requesting geographic combatant commander and Navy force-provider:

Combatant commander : We need a CSG.

Navy : Great! When do you need it ?

Combatant commander : Right away.

Navy : Well, we have one conducting Joint Task Force Exercise (JTFEX) workups and should be able to get it under way in three or four weeks.

Combatant commander : Can we get the carrier moving quickly our way first ?

Navy : No. We train for this JTFEX major-combat scenario and deploy them as a unit. Once they get to your theater, they can disaggregate and do what you need.

Combatant commander : Oh.

Navy : What do you need them for ?

Combatant commander : Well, things are getting a little tense over by the strait and we're working on about 50 theater-engagement goals.

Navy : Fifty engagement goals ? Are there any priority goals or countries we can plan on engaging first ?

Combatant commander : They're all really important. There'll be lots of port calls, distinguished visitor embarks, and exercises.

Navy : Are you sure we can't send you an ARG/MEU ? We just happened to have one a few days away.

Combatant commander : No thanks. We really want a CSG.

There are several points worth highlighting here. First, in the current RFF system, the geographic combatant command request is based on units of force structure rather than desired effects or objectives. Second, since the Navy is primarily built around CSGs, the requested unit of naval force structure often becomes the CSG. Finally, CSGs work up and deploy as a unit but usually disaggregate once they reach the theater of operations. The implicit assumption in this approach is that the CSG is the "Swiss-army knife" of naval forces, trained and prepared for MCOs but able to conduct the full spectrum of missions, including engagement. In other words, send the CSG, and the theater will use it appropriately.

Assuming our supply limits have not been exceeded, a demand-based deployment strategy should be expected to address the requirements of a dynamic security environment by providing an appropriately tailored naval force response. However, despite the fact that we clearly met the threshold of the old Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times" during the past decade, the number of ships we maintained on deployment remained relatively constant. This somewhat counterintuitive result indicates that the simple "naval supply and demand" curve is actually a series of non-linear partial differential equations.

Speaking a Common Joint-Force Language

Since the only thing more difficult than solving partial differential equations is having a conversation about them, perhaps an alternative dialect could be used to clarify the relationship between "naval supply" and "theater demand." In the foreword to the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) , Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen states that the concept's primary purpose "is to guide force development and experimentation by: (1) establishing a common framework for military professionals for thinking about future joint operations, (2) visualizing future joint operations for policymakers and others with an interest in the employment of military force, (3) establishing a conceptual foundation for subordinate joint and Service concepts, and (4) motivating and guiding the study, experimentation, and evaluation of joint concepts and capabilities."

With these objectives in mind, the CCJO then defines the four basic categories of military activities from which all joint operations are constructed:

  • Combat: Defeating armed enemies - regular, irregular, or both.
  • Security: Protecting and controlling civil populations and territory - friendly, hostile, or neutral.
  • Engagement: Improving the capabilities of or cooperation with allied and other partners.
  • Relief and Reconstruction: Restoring essential civil services in the wake of combat, a breakdown of civil order, or a natural disaster.

Most joint operations require some combination of at least two or more of these activities, so it's also useful to think of them as building blocks rather than simply categories. Although it has been stipulated for the record that the world is likely to remain an uncertain place for the immediate future, attempting to map theaters by their projected CCJO activity "sweet spot" may provide a basis for assessing projected naval force demand.

Mapping the Sweet Spot

While there is no approved joint definition for the phrase sweet spot, and granted, no theater can be characterized by a point on a graph, this admittedly simplistic view of the world does highlight that the framers of the original Unified Command Plan got it right by dividing the world into different theaters. These theaters are indeed very different places with dissimilar joint activities, as the list here attests.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) : This is currently the joint force's combat theater. It is likely to remain focused on combat or poised at the edge of it for years to come.

U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) : This command is vast and extraordinarily complex and contains nuclear states, the majority of the world's trade, and high-stakes security requirements. The joint force's task is to deter major-power war through collective security and the presence of credible combat power to keep PACOM out of the CCJO "combat-activity" column.

U.S. European Command (EUCOM) : This theater of operations is the home of the world's most powerful military alliance: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Based on the predominance of EUCOM's high-end allies, the focus of the joint force will continue to be engagement , but specific security operations such as theater ballistic-missile defense are definitely a growth business.

U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) : Although predominantly an engagement theater with discrete security missions, SOUTHCOM's relief and reconstruction effort in Haiti is likely to be an enduring joint-force mission that is critical to the region's stability.

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) : The focus of the joint force will be to prevent resource competition and humanitarian crises from metastasizing into major security crises. Relief and reconstruction will be AFRICOM's core capabilities.

U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) : Is there a joint-force mission more important to the American public than homeland defense and security ?

Aside from the obvious differences among the commands, from a perspective of demand, the words of Marine General James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command, sum up the default position for all theaters: "The joint force is in the business of exporting security."

Rewriting the Dialogue

Now that we have a new joint language and understanding of theater requirements, let's try a revised "request for forces" conversation:

Combatant commander : We need a CSG.

Navy : No, you don't.

Combatant commander : Huh ?

Navy : You need a Naval Task Group.

Combatant commander : What the heck is a Naval Task Group ?

Navy : We've been putting a lot of effort into joint concept development and experimentation over the past few years and came up with a deployment strategy that enables us to tailor naval forces to better achieve your objectives. Our new strategy starts with a much larger group of ships and capabilities—the Naval Task Force—that we can completely customize into Naval Task Groups to meet all your theater needs.

Combatant commander : But "Carrier Strike Group" sounds cooler. Are you joking ?

Navy : We never joke. Our Navy battle force has decreased by 20 percent over the past ten years, so we have to get this right.

Combatant commander : Okay. How does it work ?

Navy : We used to send the CSG and call audibles at your theater line of scrimmage by disaggregating it. For the bigger requirements, we would scramble to send multiple CSGs and even an ARG/MEU or two. Now we start with a naval task force that has two CVNs, six amphibs, two MEUs, 14 surface combatants, six fast-attack submarines and one cruise-missile submarine (SSGN)—a big toolbox instead of just a Swiss-Army knife. We have two of these naval task forces on each coast—commanded by two-star admirals—which are capable of being customized to four types of naval task groups based on required joint-force activities. Our emphasis, of course, is on making sure we reduce risk on the combat and security activities, but we do the best we can to support the others. All of these activities connect to joint sea-basing missions that are actually the major focus of our training. Sea control is a prerequisite for any operation, so that's included at no extra charge.

Combatant commander : Can you show me the playbook, so we can pick which Naval Task Group we want ?

Navy : It's a playbook, not a force-structure Chinese menu! Tell us what activities you need for addressing near-term issues and your Theater Campaign Plan objectives, and we'll call the plays for you.

Combatant commander : Well, things are getting a little tense over by the strait, so we have a potential near-term security crisis that we'd like to keep from turning into combat. We also have something like 50 theater engagement goals we're working on.

Navy : What we'll need is a "Level III/Green/B,C,D/5-7."

Combatant commander : I don't understand this. Can't we have a CSG ?

Navy : Don't worry, it's easy. We'll send a Level III Naval Task Group with a security-activity focus and littoral sea-control capability to conduct sea-based building partnership capacity, maritime security, and compellence missions for a projected duration of five to seven months. You can get a CVN, big-deck amphib, and three fast-attack submarines right away. We'll swing some surface combatants over from EUCOM to meet them there.

Combatant commander : Wow! Don't you have to work these forces up and deploy them together ?

Navy : Nope. Now we focus on interoperability with standardized tactics, training, and procedures during workups. It's all "plug and play," so everyone can operate together no matter where they come from. We also integrate the Navy and Marine Corps team right from the start. We save the big exercises for the theater so we can bring in the allies and get maximum cooperative security value out of it.

Combatant commander : This is great! I love this Naval Task Group thing!!! Anything else you need from us ?

Navy : We're going to have to talk about those 50 engagement goals over a beer. We can probably work on your top five goals this time around, but you'll have to address the next 45 with some other organization, like the United Federation of Planets.

Combatant commander : Don't push your luck. You still need to sell this to JFCOM, the Joint Staff, and OSD.

Navy : Who do you think funded the joint experiments that led to this deployment concept ?

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy placed a great deal of emphasis on concept development and experimentation, resulting in major innovations such as carrier aviation and amphibious warfare, which not only enabled us to prevail in World War II, but on which the joint force continues to rely today. The success of our future joint force, therefore, will be determined by how well we anticipate challenges and develop concepts to overcome them. The JOE paints a future global-security picture characterized by a mindboggling array of diverse, concurrent crises. This picture doesn't necessarily represent our destiny, however. By virtue of its inherent flexibility, adaptability, and forward-deployed posture, a seabased Navy-Marine Corps team ideally should be suited help national leaders and joint force commanders manage this dangerous and uncertain world - but only if we figure out how best to employ it.


"The Navy at a Tipping Point: Maritime Dominance at Stake." Captain Peter Swartz, U.S. Navy, CNA publication, February 2010.

Personal interviews with Commander David Dominy, Royal Navy; Captain Swartz; Commander Bryan Clark, OPNAV N00X; Captain Tom Abernethy, U.S. Navy; and Captain Brad Kyker, OPNAV N51.

Captain Addison is assigned to the staff of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5) as branch head for advanced concepts (N511). He is an oceanographer and former submarine strategic weapons officer, and a frequent contributor to Proceedings .


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