The Deadly Future of Littoral Sea Control

By Commander Phillip E. Pournelle, U.S. Navy

Sir Julian’s Three Elements

What is sea control? As the Royal Navy puts it, it is “the condition in which one has freedom of action to use the sea for one’s own purposes in specified areas and for specified periods of time and, where necessary, to deny or limit its use to the enemy. Sea control includes the airspace above the surface and the water volume and seabed below.” 1

Without sea control, all other attributions and capabilities for a fleet are irrelevant. As noted by the classic naval strategist Sir Julian Corbett, control (he used the word “command”) of the sea is fleeting and “the only positive value which the high seas have for national life is as a means of communication.” 2 Given the fleeting status of command/control then, accomplishing it must be in support of further goals. Corbett breaks down his concept of control of the sea into three distinct areas: securing command, disputing command, and exercising command. Where securing enables exercising command, the disputing may deny or at least reduce the ability of an opponent to use the sea for his own purposes. 3

So it would appear a navy unable to accomplish Corbett’s three elements is unbalanced, particularly if it cannot do so in the critical littorals. Execution of Corbett’s three areas can roughly be translated into three current mission areas: scouting, maritime-interception operations (MIO), and destruction. Enemy forces, and merchant ships, must be located through scouting. While ships and merchants could be simply swept from the sea, more often than not there is a need to be present to shape events and conduct visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) or MIO in support of sanctions, proliferation reduction, or other operations short of unrestricted warfare. VBSS/MIO is critical when there is a need to confirm the identity or contents of a vessel.

The characteristics of different platforms drive their strengths and weaknesses within these three mission areas. In the past, aircraft carriers were the best platforms to secure command of the sea. That role is being contested in anti-access/area-denial environments created by competitors. The air wing provided excellent scouting capabilities, but the U.S. Navy has determined land-based maritime-patrol aircraft (MPA) are best capable of searching large volumes of water, as long as the airspace is not being contested. The carrier is an inefficient vessel for VBSS. It is only used in the most extreme circumstances and limited in capacity. Further, because so many other mission capacities are tied up in one platform, using the carrier for VBSS (or humanitarian aid/disaster relief, for that matter) denies these capabilities to other missions during the duration of the operation. The carrier air wing is currently the best platform for destruction thanks to the volume of fire it can produce, and the mobility of the carrier as a home base, though it can be argued surface ships could be more cost-effective in this role. MPA can be effective in destruction but are limited by the fixed operating location of their airfield.

Submarines are poor scouting platforms with limited perception of the area around them, but they can enter anti-access areas often denied to surface ships and carriers. While they are poor VBSS/MIO platforms and have not been used in that role, submarines have an oversized impact on destruction. Their weapon of choice, as seen in the Falklands War, can be extremely deadly, and the psychological shock of an unlocated submarine can neutralize an enemy fleet.

Surface ships are good scouting platforms, particularly if equipped with helicopters and/or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They are good platforms for destruction if armed with appropriate weapons. The U.S. Navy has long vacillated back and forth regarding arming them with Harpoon or other antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) mostly because of target-identification challenges. Surface ships are the best platform for conducting VBSS/MIO, if there are sufficient numbers of ships. Today Arleigh Burke –class destroyers are conducting VBSS/MIO off the coast of Africa and other locations. Given the cost and other mission capabilities, does it really make sense for these air-defense destroyers or other large capital ships to conduct VBSS/MIO?

The U.S. Navy appears to be building a fleet to secure and dispute command of the sea, but not to exercise it. A fleet centered around aircraft carriers and submarines with few surface ships mostly defending the carrier will lack the ability to exercise command, and this can greatly limit strategy and policy. More important, such a force will find it difficult to be present to shape events in the future environment.

Tomorrow’s Lethal Threat

The maritime arena is rapidly changing and in the near future will be quite deadly. ASCMs are rapidly proliferating as is the threat of mines. 4 While mines pose their own pernicious dangers, their area of effect is relatively limited. ASCMs on mobile launchers pose an ever-expanding threat. Hezbollah’s 2006 surprise attack against an Israeli corvette was only the beginning. The weapon employed by Hezbollah was designed by the Chinese and exported by Iran. 5 We should expect those who wish to challenge the current power structure to proliferate such weapons to proxies, both government and nongoverning organizations. As the precision-strike regime, ironically created by the United States, propagates around the world, ASCMs and other threats to surface ships will expand. The speed of this proliferation may accelerate as new low-footprint manufacturing capabilities spread. 6

This will greatly change the security environment, particularly in the littorals, as it will greatly increase the lethality of smaller vessels and shore batteries. 7 This will in turn profoundly alter the security landscape. The Tamil Sea Tigers tied the Sri Lankan navy in knots through the use of small attack boats and suicide explosive vessels. 8 Had they possessed ASCMs they could possibly have won. Similar challenges may arise in an ally’s conflict with irregular forces such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines’ archipelagic environment. Closer to home could be the arming of semisubmersible platforms with ASCMs or other PSR weapons. The greatest threat will be to amphibious operations into places with conditions like Lebanon’s. 9

In the face of these challenges warships have poor staying power. They are not capable of taking hits in proportion to their size (and, by proxy, cost). Multiple studies show the ability of a ship to take damage grows only at the cube root of its displacement in ships with a displacement of around 2,000 metric tons (such as the LCS) only able to take a single hit from an ASCM to be rendered out of action. 10 Others are more pessimistic about the ability of modern ships to take damage from modern weapons, particularly those with large internal volume such as a mission bay. 11

A ship’s vulnerability to ASCMs is disproportionate to her staying power. The probability of a ship being detected and hit by an ASCM is increased by her radar cross section (RCS). As a ship’s designed displacement grows, her RCS grows much more rapidly than her staying power. 12 This can be ameliorated by the use of expensive stealth approaches in the shaping and coating of ships. The use of hardkill systems such as Aegis comes at the expense of creating a high profile with a unique signature giving away the ship’s position. The greater efficiency of fitting such weapon systems into larger ships is part of how the U.S. Navy arrived where it is today, with a dwindling number of expensive ships.

Since it has spend the last several decades operating in an uncontested environment, the Navy has designed its fleet accordingly. However, the combination of an increasingly threatening world with fewer ships will have significant tactical, operational, and strategic implications.

The tactical implications of a precision-strike-regime weapons–proliferated environment are significant. The 2012 conflict between Israel and Hamas demonstrated how critical scouting capabilities are in the face of such threats but that there is never enough to meet the challenge. In the cluttered littoral environment, even in the midst of an active conflict, reaction times are short, hardkill missiles historically have not worked, and ships cannot constantly operate electronic warfare systems or deploy short-lived decoys. Ships will be lost in the confusing and confined littoral region. 13 The question is how much of a proportion of the U.S. Navy’s capabilities will be lost when it occurs. Numbers matter, and having a large signature is a good way to get hit.

Toward a Balanced Fleet

The key is balance. Rather than continuing our current trend of an all large-ship navy, or eliminating all the large ships for smaller ones, a balanced force and a ship designed to fight in the littorals are both required. This dangerous environment was foreseen, and alternatives (including the Streetfighter concept) were forwarded as a potential solution. 14 However, the LCS was delivered instead. In an effort to advance the Navy’s future capabilities in the dangerous littorals, it is important to identify existing alternatives within the U.S. inventory for rapid alteration and experimentation. There are at least two existing platforms that could be employed to meet our needs: the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sentinel-class fast-response cutter (FRC) and the Mk-VI patrol boat.

The FRC has a far smaller signature than an LCS. It has endurance and operating range slightly shorter than an LCS’s, but great enough to transit the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans on its own. While they would lose some of their adaptability, an up-armed FRC could carry four ASCMs, a SeaRAM self-defense system, and decoys in addition to its current complement of a 25-mm auto-cannon and small arms. These patrol craft can operate in large enough numbers and maintain littoral sea control with far greater fidelity than larger platforms. For the cost of owning and operating an LCS and two MH-60 helicopters, between 14 and 28 FRCs can be owned and operated, depending on how they are modified and armed. 15

The new Navy Mk-VI patrol boat could be modified to carry two ASCMs and decoy systems. It has a very low profile and an operating range of 600 nautical miles, which would require a mother ship to transport and sustain it. For the total ownership cost of a single LCS and two helicopters, 14 Mk-VIs and one mother ship based on the T-AKE design can be acquired and operated. 16

Ironically, smaller ships require the expenditure of more ASCMs to kill them than do larger vessels. While the smaller ships given as alternatives would be destroyed by a single hit, the probability of hitting them is much smaller due to their smaller signature. Thus an enemy commander must launch more missiles to have confidence in the destruction of one of these smaller platforms than the larger one. To gain an 80 percent confidence in destruction against the Mk-VI, he would have to launch more than three ASCMs, while the FRC and the LCS would require more than two ASCMs. 17 But instead of just one LCS, the adversary would be faced with the prospect of at least 14 platforms to track and target. While he could employ smaller weapons effectively against each platform, it will require a significantly larger investment to achieve the same confidence (140 ASCMs for the FRC flotilla, more for the Mk-VIs) than the prospect of a single lucky hit against a single ship.

The LCS is not designed to fight in the littorals. It is too large and lacks offensive punch with any reach. Claims that it has a reduced signature are simply not supported by the evidence. Both LCS designs have large internal volumes above the waterline and lack any sign of low observable shaping that would change the results of the RCS prediction models. 18 However, the LCS is an effective launch platform for other systems such as helicopters, unmanned air systems, and unmanned surface vessels, which are potentially effective for combat in the littorals.

The dangers posed by shore batteries can be used to our own advantage. By reviving the Marine Corps Defense Battalions (or revising the Marine expeditionary unit mission set to include this historic mission) combined with Navy Expeditionary Combat Command teams and/or supporting allies’ employment of shore-based ASCMs, land-based UAVs, and flotillas of Mk-VIs or FRCs to seize and/or create littoral outposts, we can project our own anti-access/area-denial capabilities against enemy aggression. 19 (Reviving this mission would return the Marine Corps to its roots.) Shore batteries and support facilities can employ denial-and-deception techniques to hide in the clutter on land or employ hardened facilities. However, these littoral outposts, employing combined arms, require doctrine and diplomacy with our regional allies in advance; they cannot be effective in an ad hoc manner.

Big Ship = Big Risk

There are significant operational and strategic implications with a small number of large-signature ships in a PSR-proliferated environment. The situation creates a brittle fleet, raises the stakes in a crisis, and increases the need to use force in a blockade operation. All of these decrease the options available to commanders and national command authority. On the other hand, a fleet that can be reinforced rapidly in a conflict can be a significant deterrent to an enemy looking for a rapid win.

The foremost operational effect is a brittleness of the fleet. The tactical impact detailed earlier has influenced U.S. Navy operations today. The deployment of advanced ASCMs to Syria posed an increased threat to ships should they have been off the coast. Commanders will increasingly be reticent to deploy small numbers of large-signature ships in this deadly environment for fear of potentially losing a significant amount of firepower in the loss of a single ship.

From that follows a loss of influence. With smaller numbers of ships, the United States will lack the ability to simply be present to shape events. Faced with a growing hidden threat, commanders will be reluctant to place large-signature ships in the littorals for extended periods of time. However, this is the exact area where they will be the most needed if the United States wishes to shape events and prevent conflict. 20

A fleet conducting embargo or blockade operations is more effective and less likely to use force if it has more ships. While some argue a blockade employing offshore control is an effective strategy because it decreases the pace of escalation, it is only true if force is not routinely required to enforce it. Any selective embargoes/blockades focused on particular commodities or “contraband” will be platform-intensive, requiring multiple VBSS missions per day. 21 Ships conducting interception and boarding on one ship are not available against another, particularly given the immense size of many cargo vessels plying the ocean trade today. If a fleet’s numbers, and therefore boarding capacities, drop below an effective number, a general embargo/blockade will be required. This will be less intensive but still require numbers, particularly if we wish to retain the capacity to employ VBSS techniques to stop those who would attempt to run the blockade without general destruction. If a fleet’s numbers drop below the ability to board sufficient ships willing to risk running a blockade, then force will be required. An example will need to be made. It will be necessary to sink some merchant ships to demonstrate to the rest the blockade is “real and effective.” This will of course have significant impact on the social and maritime environment with the sight of sinking merchant ships, oil leaks, etc.

In the case of rising tensions with a near-peer competitor, we face the significant possibility of miscalculation. The offensive-dominant environment created by ASCMs present opposing commanders with the “use-’em-or-lose-’em” dilemma when there is a potential of spending most if not all his force in a preemptive strike. Distributing firepower among more numerous, lower-profile ships can shift this environment back into our favor and reduce the impact of miscalculation.

All three of these examples illustrate the narrowing of options to commanders and national command authority as the size of a surface fleet decreases and their capabilities become concentrated on fewer, but larger platforms.

Changing the fleet architecture to incorporate more numerous and smaller vessels can increase our strategic depth. In the event of a conflict with a near-peer competitor there is a significant possibility of loss of forces on both sides in the opening of combat. The current fleet design employs ships that take years to build. While this time line could be accelerated in the event of war, it would still take months to construct limited numbers of ships in the finite shipyards we have capable of building them. A fleet that includes a greater proportion of smaller vessels at the ready would be able to make use of a wider array of shipyards, some nowhere near the coastline, to build large numbers of replacement ships. This capability would be a strong deterrent against an enemy looking for an “assassin’s mace” or knockout blow in an opening conflict.

A New Fleet Architecture

The U.S. Navy must reexamine its fleet architecture to remain relevant. Sea control consists of more than scouting and destruction. Exercising it is manpower-intensive, requiring large numbers of surface ships. A fleet focused on aircraft carriers and submarines is not balanced and will be limited in its capability to conduct scouting and destruction. Employing multibillion-dollar air-defense platforms to conduct VBSS/MIO operations is not a cost-effective strategy. For a small price a large number of small ships can be employed to balance the fleet’s ability to operate in the dangerous littoral environment.

The age of uncontested seas is coming to an end, and ASCMs are sounding its death-knell. The proliferation of such precision-strike-regime weapons will continue and accelerate either through the distribution of such weapons by those who wish to contest U.S. dominance or through the spreading of additive manufacturing techniques. The lethality and reach of smaller vessels and obscured shore batteries will continue to increase. This will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the U.S. fleet and the options it can afford its commanders and national leadership. Concentration of capabilities within a few large signature ships creates a brittle fleet and the increased potential of miscalculation in a crisis. The smaller the number of surface ships available to conduct presence and other missions, the fewer options will be available, resulting in an increase in the requirement to use force to conduct operations such as an embargo or blockade.

Fortunately, the U.S. Navy has access to ship designs that can easily be modified to be cost- and combat-effective in this deadly environment. Bolstered by the revival of the Marine Corps’ historic missions, the development of littoral outposts, and the use of combined arms at sea, the Navy can gain the upper hand in the littorals. This will require embracing more numerous and smaller-profile surface ships and a review of joint doctrine within the Navy and with our allies. The U.S. Navy must adapt to this new reality—or face potential failure in a conflict for which it is not prepared.

1. British Maritime Doctrine , 3rd ed. (London: Ministry of Defence, 2004), 289.

2. Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988 repub. of 1911 ed.).

3. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).

4. Thomas G. Mahnken, “Weapons: The Growth & Spread of the Precision-Strike Regime,” Daedalus , vol. 140, no. 3 (June 2011), 45–57. Scott C. Truver, “Taking Mines Seriously: Mine Warfare in China’s Near Seas,” Naval War College Review , vol. 65, no. 2 (Spring 2012), 30–66.

5. Randy Huiss, Proliferation of Precision Strike: Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2012). Frank Gardner, “Hezbollah Missile Threat Assessed,” BBC, 3 August 2006, .

6. “New 3D Printing Center Aims to Boost US Manufacturing”, 16 August 2012, .

7. CAPT Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.), “Take the Small Boat Threat Seriously,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 126, no. 10 (October 2000), 104–6.

8. Molly Dunigan et al., Characterizing and Exploring the Implications of Maritime Irregular Warfare (Arlington, VA: RAND, 2012).

9. The Proliferation of Precision-Guided Weapons and the Future of Naval Irregular Warfare: Assessment and Implications (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010).

10. Richard L. Humphrey, “Warship Damage Rules for Naval Wargaming,” presentation to the TIMS/ORSA Joint National Meeting, Naval Warfare Center, Silver Spring, MD, May 1990. Hughes, Fleet Tactics , Figure 6-1.

11. John C. Schulte, “An Analysis of the Historical Effectiveness of Anti-ship Cruise Missiles in Littoral Warfare” (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School paper, September 1994), . K. W. Brzozowsky and R. M. Memmesheimer, “The Application of the Sochard Ship Damage Model to World War II Ship Damage” (unpublished Naval Surface Warfare Center monograph, 1988).

12. “Ship RCS Table,” .

13. Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997). Schulte, “Analysis.”

14. VADM A. K. Cebrowski, USN, and CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), “Rebalancing the Fleet,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 125, no. 11 (November 1999), 31–34.

15. Richard C. Arthur, “Patrol Craft Can Maintain Littoral Sea Control,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 125, no. 8 (August 1999), 70–71.

16. “Defense Acquisition Management Information Retrieval,” DAMIR website, .

17. Larry Bond and Chris Carlson, Harpoon 4: Modern Tactical Naval Warfare (Sassamansville, PA: Clash of Arms Games, 1996).

18. “Ship RCS Table.”

19. Maj. Charles D. Melson, USMC (Ret.), Condition Red: Marine Defense Battalions in World War II (Washington, DC: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1996). CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.) and Jeffrey Kline, “A Flotilla to Support a Strategy of Offshore Control” (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School paper, January 2013).

20. CDR Henry J. Hendrix, USN, “More Henderson, Less Bonds,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 136, no. 4 (April 2010), 60–65.

21. Col. T. X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.), “Offshore Control is the Answer,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 138, no. 12 (December 2012), 22–25.

Commander Pournelle is a surface warfare officer and an operations analyst. He serves on the staff of the Department of Defense Office of Net Assessment. He has a master’s degree in operations analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School.


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