Cede No Water: Strategy, Littorals, and Flotillas

By Captain Robert C. Rubel, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Command vs. Control

The U.S. Navy has enjoyed comprehensive command of the sea since World War II. Rightly considered, this is a strength relationship between or among navies. If, because of the results of battle or other factors, one navy is sufficiently strong with respect to actual or potential opponents, it gains freedom of action in various ways, including the ability to disperse its combatants widely to exercise sea control—the protection of ships—in multiple locations. 2 In addition, the nation may disperse its capital ships to exercise command of the sea; that is, through the threat or use of power projection, enforce the rules of an international system that is congenial to its interests. 3 This latter function reflects U.S. Navy strategy since 1945. Exercising command demands the use of the most capable ships; in the U.S. case, aircraft carriers. Boasting powerful land-attack capabilities, these ships have anchored the U.S. policy of maintaining strategic stability. Command of the sea permits not only their dispersal but also the ability to move them close to the scene of action ashore and compromise their mobility, actions that in other ages would have been considered excessively risky to capital ships.

As China and Iran develop sea-denial capabilities, the risks to the carriers escalate and the traditional logic of naval strategy asserts itself. Capital ships are to be used to secure command of the sea, and this means they must be committed only when the prospect for gaining such command exists. The problem is that neither China nor Iran is looking to seize command, nor are they structuring their forces to do so. Instead, they seek, in the first instance, to disrupt and deny U.S. naval forces the ability to exercise sea control in their littoral waters and near seas. This may be for coercive purposes or to allow aggression via the sea.

Any such warfare will be about seizing or denying control in a specific sea area, thus the logic of strategy suggests that capital ships not be risked in such fights. This does not mean that capital ships are therefore no longer useful, because command of the sea or lack thereof forms the political and strategic context in the struggle for sea control. These fights always involve only a specific area of the world ocean, while command, especially in today’s world, is a global condition. The U.S. Navy is inherently a global force, and regardless of the importance of a local sea-control fight, the rest of the ocean as well as future global strategic dynamics must be considered in risk calculations.

Peace vs. War: Crisis

While a surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor initiated World War II in the Pacific, subsequent history suggests that a future naval war will ignite out of a smoldering crisis that features the intermingled maneuvering of opposing naval forces prior to the outbreak of hostilities. The Soviet and U.S. naval confrontation in the autumn of 1973 in the Eastern Mediterranean serves as a potential paradigm. 4 (The author was a junior attack pilot on the USS Independence [CV-62] during the crisis. The Soviet Fifth Eskadra had antiship missiles and a plan to use them. The U.S. 6th Fleet had little in the way of a responsive counterthreat. The carriers only had munitions appropriate for land attack, and the air wings had no antiship tactics; a function of the Navy’s focus on power projection in Vietnam for so many years.)

Generally speaking, the tactical offense is dominant at sea, and the force that is able to strike effectively first is likely to attain an insurmountable advantage. 5 For this reason, naval forces strive to remain unlocated or at least untargeted. Maneuvering during crisis in constrained waters in the presence of the potential enemy tends to sacrifice any covertness. Thus naval forces in such a situation tend to be on a hair trigger. The situation is exacerbated if one or both sides have committed capital ships to the situation.

The U.S. naval strategy, as has been stated, is to distribute single carrier groups widely to cover key potential trouble spots around the Eurasian littoral. If a crisis erupts, and especially if it erupts quickly, the most likely scenario is that a single carrier group will be the first American force on scene. This was both normal and acceptable when there was no appreciable threat at sea. Given time, the U.S. Navy can and has aggregated multiple carrier groups on scene for sufficient combat power. However, in the future environment, concentrating a multi-carrier force will take longer due to fewer hulls, and the risks will escalate due to emergent denial systems. Moreover, the movement of powerful naval forces can as easily catalyze as deter, the British dispatch of the nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror in 1982 to the Falklands being a case in point. The Argentines accurately predicted when she would arrive from the Mediterranean, and this put them in a “now-or-never” frame of mind with regard to mounting an invasion. 6 If a lucrative target loaded with potent geopolitical symbolism is on scene, with more on the way, it could precipitate a dangerous “window-of-opportunity” mindset in the opposing government. British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher reflected this logic when she said concerning British decision making prior to the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, “Most important perhaps is that nothing would have more reliably precipitated a full-scale invasion, if something less had been planned, than if we had started military preparations on the scale required to send an effective deterrent.” 7

One way to reduce the immediate jeopardy is for the on-scene carrier force to cut and run to get untargeted in more open waters until reinforcements arrive. However, this may effectively cede water space to the opponent—precisely what it wants. Had U.S. carrier groups run west of the Strait of Sicily in 1973 to get untargeted, the Soviets would have been left in possession of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Israel would have been isolated. The U.S. 6th Fleet might have been able to fight its way back in, but the Soviets would likely have gone to the U.N., asking for a halt in place of all forces for a cooling off, and the United States would have been in a politically weak position. Obviously, the subs would have remained on scene, but the signaling was strictly a function of surface ships.

The key characteristic of naval forces is their mobility; it allows for maneuver on a global scale and is also protective. Naval mobility is a continuous factor in peace and war, and in the way the former transitions to the latter. In confined seas and in crisis maneuvering it tends to be compromised in either an absolute or relative sense. Mobility, in both its senses, is most important for capital ships. We must recognize the possibility that strategic mobility of such ships could as easily be catalytic as a deterrent and that loss of protective mobility could have the same effect. The current U.S. maritime strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21), asserts that preventing wars is as important as winning them. The analysis so far presented suggests that continuing to follow the pattern of aircraft carrier employment that has been used for the last six decades is increasingly un-strategic.

Credible Combat Power vs. Trip Wires

CS21 calls for concentrating “combat-credible” forces in the Middle East and in East Asia. It does not further define what is meant by combat-credible, but the logical inference is that such forces, whatever their composition, would be sufficiently capable to either defeat aggression outright or at least delay the attainment of some irretrievable military or political fait accompli. This is a rather rigorous standard, given that the U.S. Navy is operating in the littoral of a potential opponent who can bring significant land-based forces to bear, and who presumably has the initiative in terms of when to start the fight. The bar of combat credibility is raised even higher as new and more sophisticated denial systems are introduced. Moreover, whatever the peacetime credibility of forward-deployed naval forces, the pressures of crisis may significantly alter those perceptions among potential aggressors.

In naval warfare at the tactical and even at the operational level, seizing the initiative matters considerably, and thus U.S. doctrine publications are full of exhortations to do so. However, at the strategic level the picture changes. Options and political room for maneuver become critical. Having the luxury of making the second move tends to open up these things to government and military leadership. Assuming the United States does not shoot first in a situation in which deterrence fails, the question becomes what price it is willing to pay for the opportunity to have the second move.

That can range from negligible, as when some unmanned system is destroyed, to near catastrophic, if multiple aircraft carriers are put out of action. At the catastrophic level, powerful national emotions are involved, and this might take away scope for political maneuver by the President. On the other hand, loss of an unmanned system (unless perhaps it is a key satellite) is unlikely to amount to a casus belli, and here again, scope for political maneuver is limited. This logic leads us to the notion of a trip wire.

Naval forces have a long history of being used as such. British gunboats during the heyday of empire were not especially capable ships, but anyone attacking them had to face the possibility that at some point the Royal Navy would show up in force. The trip wire must be such that attacking it would plausibly justify a strong response, but its loss would not materially affect the fighting strength of the Fleet. On this basis alone, the LCS would appear to be a useful presence platform in constrained seas; it has a small crew and does not represent a critical combat capability. However, our analysis must not stop there.

The invasion of Iraq notwithstanding, the United States is generally not looking for a fight. Deterrence has always been the watchword and as previously stated, CS21 says that prevention of wars is as important as winning them. On this account the concept of a trip wire becomes suspect, and the idea of credible combat power gains importance. Forces on scene in peacetime and during a crisis must have the ability to disrupt enemy aggression or otherwise inflict operationally or strategically significant harm, and they must be able to do it after riding out a first strike.

This suggests the distribution of offensive power—missiles, most easily—among numerous platforms and making those platforms hard to target. In such a situation a potential aggressor is faced with a dilemma in which the prospects for a disabling first strike are dim, but any attempt will break a trip wire and also precipitate an immediate damaging response. Meanwhile, the U.S. national command authorities hold the political cards and can dispatch, if they wish, powerful forces that can conduct a structured rollback campaign of their choosing. In this kind of scenario it would be hard for the aggressor to claim any kind of moral victory. This logic would not be lost among foreign leadership, and deterrence would be thereby improved, assuming there was any chance of its working in the first place.

‘Being There’

“Being there” matters in strategically important ways. American naval forces have just and sufficient reason to operate continuously in the littorals of Eurasia in light of historical developments since World War II and as a matter of global public good as outlined in CS21 . The strategic mobility of naval forces is a massive advantage, but for reasons outlined here, it can be a double-edged sword in modern conditions. The U.S. Navy would be well served to create new kinds of forward forces that are less strategically mobile but more tactically suitable for the operational conditions that are emerging in the Persian Gulf, South China Sea and elsewhere. The LCS may fulfill part of this requirement, and thus it is entirely appropriate that a number of them are being stationed forward. However, the LCS plus existing strike-group ships do not appear to fully answer the new requirements.

Since the age of fighting sail, confined seas, estuaries, lakes, rivers, and bays have been the province of flotillas—groups of small, numerous, and often specialized craft. The range of modern weapons has expanded the breadth and extent of the areas that should rightly fall into the flotilla domain. Through flotilla operations the U.S. Navy can retain a strategy of ceding no water space, either as a matter of peacetime policy or crisis maneuver.

Although the U.S. Navy has not often used flotillas (Vietnam riverine operations come to mind), they are a legitimate element of naval strategy and have their own singular set of operating principles—most of which the Navy has forgotten. Sorting out ship, boat, weapon, and systems designs is only partially a matter of technological push. There should also be a strategic and operational pull that defines missions. This will establish suitability criteria for various designs. Unfortunately, the Navy has not yet adopted the strategic concept of flotilla operations. It will therefore continue to throw money at developing stronger defenses for capital ships so that they can be used in strategically inappropriate ways.

Flotilla operations should be called out in the next refresh of CS21 and incorporated into the Naval Operational Concept. They should be gamed out thoroughly enough that capability requirements and criteria can be established. Working top-down in this manner will guide and facilitate bottom-up technical development and eventually tactical innovation. In this way the Navy can make its investments of scarce resources with more confidence. A program office for flotilla operations should be established, such as was done for Air-Sea Battle and irregular warfare. It should be noted at this point that flotilla operations would involve elements of irregular warfare and might contribute to Air-Sea Battle, but are best approached as a distinct branch of naval warfare. Operationally there should be a flotilla task-force commander reporting to the regional Navy component. Flotilla operations will be regionally specialized and may require tailored forces with distinct characteristics as well as doctrine customized for the particular circumstances of the region.

There are some cultural and emotional Rubicons for the Navy to cross in order to achieve effective flotilla operations. It must embrace truly small combatants, and the surface-warfare community must not orphan flotilla sailors and officers; they must have viable career paths. Flotilla operations as envisioned here and later in this issue will be forward and closely connected to local navies and nations. Thus there seems to be a natural link between a putative flotilla specialty and the Foreign Area Officer program. The Navy Expeditionary Combat Command may be spliced into it, and it stands to reason that Special Forces would also be involved.

Flotilla operations are a feasible and appropriate response to the intersection of emerging access-denial technologies, the logic of naval strategy, and the geopolitical imperatives of the United States that require it to “cede no water” to those who would seek to limit freedom of navigation or conduct aggression at sea.

1. Milan Vego, “Go Smaller; Time for the Navy to Get Serious About the Littorals,” Armed Forces Journal , April 2013, www.armedforcesjournal.com/2013/04/13617202 .

2. Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London: Longmans, Grean and Company, 1918), Part II, Chapter II, 100–04.

3. Robert C. Rubel, “Command of the Sea: An Old Concept Resurfaces in a New Form,” Naval War College Review , Autumn 2012, 21–33. This perspective on command of the sea was derived from George Modelski and William Thompson, Seapower in Global Politics 1494–1993 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 16-17.

4. For additional insight, see Lyle Goldstein and Yuri Zhukov, “Tale of Two Fleets: A Russian Perspective on the 1973 Naval Standoff in the Mediterranean,” Naval War College Review , Spring 2004, 27–63, www.usnwc.edu/Publications/Naval-War-College-Review/2004---Spring.aspx .

5. Wayne Hughes, Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice (Annapolis, MD.: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 25.

6. Lawrence Freedman and Virginia Gamba-Stonehouse, Signals of War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 65–78.

7. Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 174.

Captain Rubel is currently the Dean, Center for Naval Warfare Studies, at the Naval War College. He is a retired naval officer who flew light-attack and strike-fighter aircraft. He is a graduate of the Spanish and U.S. naval war colleges and has written on a number of operational and strategic naval issues.


Conferences and Events

Defense Forum Washington 2015

Mon, 2015-12-07

Defense Forum Washington will take place 7 December 2015 at the Newseum - Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC.  

Maritime Security Dialogue

View All

From the Press

"Goldrick Seminar: 2015"

Thu, 2015-12-03

Guest Speakers & Book Signing

Mon, 2015-12-07

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership