As in warfare, success in football is largely determined by strategy, so coaches often try to adapt military strategies to defeat their adversaries. They are constantly on the lookout for innovative concepts. During the early days of the game, this approach actually conferred an advantage on those who best understood military theory, so service academies once dominated the gridiron. Indeed, the man generally regarded as the greatest football coach of all time, Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, learned his trade as an assistant coach at West Point.
While the similarities between Army maneuver warfare on a battlefield and the clash of football teams on a gridiron are obvious, it is the comparison of football and naval offensive strategies that may provide the more interesting insights into the question of what’s next for the U.S. joint force.
The Smash-Mouth Offense: On the Turf
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Capstone Concept for Joint Operations (CCJO) defines attrition as a defeat mechanism that “wears down an adversary’s human and material resources.” Since football is a physical contest between relatively equal forces in a defined battle space, strategies originally focused on attrition. From the earliest days of American football in the late 1800s well into the 1970s, offensive strategy was based on employing a dominating ground game with strong backs running behind large blockers. Called “smash-mouth football” because early helmets lacked face guards, it was described by observers as “three yards and a cloud of dust.” This was a force-on-force approach that required teams to have sufficient capacity to grind their adversaries into the turf.
Offensive variations of this strategy were subsequently developed to create mismatches by placing greater numbers of blockers on one part of the field to overwhelm individual defensive linemen. The Green Bay Packer “Power Sweep” was a highly successful extrapolation of this attrition warfare approach, which sent a wave of blockers toward a few overmatched defenders. Although no professional teams exclusively use a smash-mouth offense today, this capability is an important part of any playbook, because it is often the only way to get the ball over the goal line.
Naval Smash-Mouth Strategy
The naval version of this strategy historically had blue-water and littoral variants. The blue-water version traces its origins back almost 3,000 years to the ancient Phoenician triremes, which rowed at ramming speed to sink their adversaries. The triremes also frequently employed “marines” to conduct boardings. Maneuver tactics were developed to exploit weak points in opposing fleets by creating force-on-force mismatches.
More formidable warships evolved over the centuries, concentrating firepower from broadside guns to destroy opposing fleets. A famous iteration of this traditional approach was the naval “power sweep” employed by the Imperial Japanese Navy under Admiral Togo Heihachiro to “cross the T” and concentrate firepower on lead ships of the Russian line-of-battle at the Battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905. The blue-water naval smash-mouth era reached its zenith during World War I when giant British and German dreadnought battleships fought to a draw during the Battle of Jutland.
The Persians prototyped the littoral smash-mouth concept in 490 B.C., when they were encircled by the Athenians after landing at Marathon. Although amphibious landings have been conducted throughout naval history, the modern “Gator Navy” variant of this offense was developed by the joint concept development and experimentation process during the Pacific island-hopping campaign of World War II, when it became clear that the United States did not have the capability to land tanks and heavy equipment on a beach. While many anti-access defensive counters have been developed, there is one observation about smash-mouth offenses that applies equally to football and naval warfare: Sometimes you just have to run ’em over.
The West-Coast Offense
The forward pass has been legal in the game of football since the early 1900s, but traditionally it was considered a secondary offensive weapon. All this changed in the late 1970s when Don Coryell, head coach of the San Diego Chargers (and a former U.S. Army paratrooper), designed a mid- to deep-length passing attack. In the 1980s, head coach Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers evolved “Air Coryell” into what is now universally considered to be the true West-Coast Offense. In Walsh’s variant, less risky short passes are used to spread out the defense, making it vulnerable to running plays and longer passes.
This scripted “effects-based” offensive strategy, which relies on precision strike and runs up to 25 pre-planned plays in sequence, made it possible for the 49ers to win three consecutive Super Bowls. In CCJO military terminology this is known as “disruption,” a defeat mechanism that attacks “organizational cohesion or effective functioning so that even if elements of the enemy system remain undamaged, the enemy cannot operate as a coherent whole.”
The first naval analog to the West Coast Offense, focusing on disruption rather than attrition, occurred during World War I with the introduction of submarine warfare. The German navy understood the power of the new U-boats and developed innovative tactics such as the “wolfpack” to exploit their capabilities. Interestingly, based on the unrestricted-warfare campaigns of U.S. submarines in the Pacific and German U-boats in the Atlantic, which demonstrated the ability of submarines to inflict disproportionate losses on shipping relative to their numbers, submarines gained a reputation as the ultimate attritional naval weapon. It was not until the Falklands War, when HMS Conqueror essentially sidelined the entire Argentine navy with one strategic shot by sinking the cruiser ARA General Belgrano, that the disruptive potential of submarines was fully realized.
The development of the aircraft carrier was the next significant step toward a naval version of a West Coast offense. The ability of carriers to engage ships and bases from long range is the naval equivalent of “Air Coryell.” Although the Imperial Japanese Navy demonstrated the carrier’s deep-strike potential during its attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Coral Sea forever changed the concept of naval warfare. In this battle both the U.S. and Japanese navies used deep passing offenses, engaging each other at long range exclusively with carrier aircraft. This was the first of six battles between aircraft carriers in the Pacific Campaign. The U.S. Navy has been primarily organized around carriers ever since.
But a true naval analog to the West Coast offense took shape after the Korean War with the development of “big-deck” amphibious ships that could carry helicopters. This gave naval forces the ability to run an even greater variety of “offensive plays” throughout the littorals. Precision strike became an important component of this naval offense after Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Using the success of the 49ers as a model, operations were scripted based on desired effects, and targets were chosen based on operations analysis principles. Defensive counters to this approach include not wearing uniforms, dispersing targets or hiding them among civilians, acting unpredictably, and generally ignoring conventional warfare rules. In both football and warfare, good defenses sometimes defeat good offenses.
The Wildcat Offense
Derived from the “single-wing” formation popular in the 1920s, the Wildcat Offense is named for the high school football team that began experimenting with it in the late 1990s. In it, the quarterback is split out to the side, and a running back actually takes the snap from center. It is challenging to defend against, because at least four completely different types of plays (smash-mouth runs and West-Coast offense passes) can be executed from the same formation. The defense essentially gets no “indications and warning” from this hybrid offensive set up. The Wildcat Offense, therefore, is a flexible combination of attrition and disruption wrapped in a cloak of deception.
The naval version of the Wildcat Offense has yet to be designed. The potential benefits to developing one are well understood, however. The Joint Operating Environment (JOE) anticipates a world characterized by globalization, resource competition, radical ideologies, weapon proliferation, natural disasters, climate change, rising powers, overpopulation, urbanization, and, of course, wars. Based on this cheery assessment, the JOE specifically predicts that, “Over the next quarter century, U.S. military forces will be continually engaged in some dynamic combination of combat, security, engagement, and relief and reconstruction.”
Joint force commanders will need flexible options to address a range of crises and challenges. Using the prescribed format of the Commander, Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Concept Development and Experimentation Manual (CJCSM 3010), what follows is a draft pre-decisional outline of a proposed Naval Wildcat Offense Concept.
Naval Wildcat Offense Concept
The Problem: The joint force requires expeditionary options to address the challenges of the dangerous and deeply disconcerting operating environment forecast by JOE 10, without building more overseas bases or spending a lot of money.
Joint Concept Design Factors:
• Since nearly 100 percent of the world’s population lives on land, the ability to conduct operations on shore will be a key design consideration.
• We are in the process of creating a CCJO combat concept that conditionally favors “disruption” as our defeat mechanism, so we must be sure we can do that.
• The joint force needs at least two expeditionary options, because future predictions are usually wrong. The “Expeditionary Army Concept” will be completed once we finish revising one law of physics and two rules of finance, so speed is of the essence.
Central Thesis: By integrating deployable Marine Corps forces across the full range of Navy ships in flexible naval task-group configurations, the joint force will be able to conduct a full array of combat, security, relief and reconstruction, and engagement activities, thereby achieving most of our objectives. Air Force capabilities must be integrated into this concept. If the joint force requires a bigger attrition hammer, we call in the Army.
Proposed Naval Wildcat Concept Elements
Separate “Gator Navy” to be eliminated. To optimize versatility and deception, Marine forces are deployed across the entire Navy force structure—not just in 33 amphibious ships. For example, deployments may range in scale from a platoon performing security force assistance missions from a littoral combat ship to a Marine Air-Ground Task Force conducting major combat operations from an aircraft carrier.
Naval task groups to replace strike groups and rotational hubs to maximize joint force flexibility and unpredictability. Several large naval task forces, which include multiple aircraft carriers, amphibs, surface combatants, submarines, and other vessels, are apportioned to the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. The naval task forces are then deployed in tailored naval task groups. Naval task group size, composition, deployment duration, aggregation requirements, and objectives are determined by the new “Combatant Commander—Naval Force Provider Direct Dialogue Process,” which replaces the famously clunky “Global Force Management” and “Request for Forces” processes.
Pre-deployment training to focus on standardized training, tactics and procedures to optimize interoperability and flexibility. Naval task group elements may train and deploy separately, subsequently aggregating in theater to achieve joint force objectives.
• Prevent: Use engagement, interdiction of anti-access technologies, and force posture to prevent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) issues from developing. Theater focus: U.S. African Command, U.S. Southern Command, and U.S. European Command.
• Avoid: Use information dominance, maneuver, alternate domains, distributed operations, and deception to bypass A2/AD strategies. Theater focus: U.S. Pacific Command.
• Disrupt: Focus on disruptive strategies and capabilities to render A2/AD ineffective. Theater focus: U.S. Pacific Command.
• Overwhelm: Defeat A2/AD strategies with attritional approaches. Theater focus: U.S. Central Command.
Initial experimentation associated with this concept to be conducted in the U.S. African Command and U.S. Pacific Command theaters to identify challenges and maximize strategic effect. Under the proposed concept we will capitalize on the innovative work by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab at Quantico to develop flexible expeditionary concepts such as the “Company Landing Team Operations from over the Horizon.” Additionally, our traditional notions of forcible entry and phases will be updated by the evolving “domain synchronization” concept, which is based on establishing sufficient temporal and spatial domain superiority to achieve objectives.
Implications of the Naval Wildcat Offense
If this concept is adopted, the Navy and Marine Corps will have to combine many staff elements, particularly in and around the Pentagon, to pull it off. To ensure unity of effort and think through some of the “bugs,” we will need to produce a comprehensive Navy–Marine Corps strategic concept derived from the CCJO: The Naval Capstone Concept. To align our respective service budget and program efforts, our next Navy Strategic Plan will have to be a Naval Strategic Plan.
In the process, there also are likely to be a few training, language, command-and-control, and religious issues to overcome. This is not the cultural equivalent of “dogs hugging cats.” It’s actually more like “devil-dogs hugging water-rats.” This point is critically important because, as the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead says, “It’s always better to have the Marines with us than agin’ us.”
A subordinate “Ship to Objective Maneuver for Enhanced Naval Task Group Operations” concept will have to be developed. A capability-based assessment of connector options must be conducted simultaneously. Initial focus will be on integrating Marine Corps air capabilities on Navy ships.
We will have to completely rewrite the 1948 Key West Agreement to codify new service roles and missions. To accomplish this, we will first establish a working group consisting of “Iron Captains and Colonels” who will be required to check their BlackBerries and service equities at the door.
The Future Is Now
This comparison of naval with football strategic concepts was for illustrative purposes only, so it is stipulated for the record that any naval or football scholar who disputes the facts contained herein is probably correct—particularly if they note the lack of discussion about “special teams” or highlight the blatant disregard some modern combatants have shown for following rules or even wearing uniforms.
The reason we should examine the evolution of football and naval strategy is not to predict whether the Washington Redskins will resort to the Wildcat Offense this year. In the hypercompetitive environments of football and warfare, constant innovation is required, and complacency is punished. The question for the U.S. joint force and specifically for the Navy and Marine Corps really is: What is next? Our adversaries are not waiting for us to figure this out.