In-Fighting: A Needed Warfighting Skill

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

Breaking the Rules

Before prescribing the kinds of forces needed for naval in-fighting (see “Cede No Water” in the September 2013 Proceedings ), let us first explore the operational-level logic involved. First we must acknowledge two fundamental tenets of naval warfare: strike effectively first and, when possible, strike from beyond the range of enemy weapons. 3 These influence naval warfare regardless of the tactical situation (TACSIT). Thus, if you cannot strike first and you cannot fire from outside the enemy’s weapon range, you enter the battle at a disadvantage that must be overcome. How to do that is at the heart of naval in-fighting.

There are two basic, nonexclusive logical responses to not being able to strike first (a state of affairs that will be governed most likely by political guidance and/or rules of engagement): effectively parry the first strike or be able to absorb it without catastrophic degradation to the force. The most effective form of defense at sea is to remain either unlocated (TACSIT III) or located but untargeted (TACSIT II), both of which are challenging—but not impossible—in a littoral area such as the Eastern Mediterranean, a 1973 arena of crisis, the Persian Gulf, or the South China Sea. 4 There are various ways of defining the littoral or confined waters. My definition involves the three rules for capital-ship fleets: 1) keep the fleet concentrated, 2) do not become decisively engaged with shore forces unless decisively superior, and 3) do not sacrifice fleet mobility when there is a significant opposing force. Setting aside the first rule, the littoral is that body of water in which the second two rules apply. Its physical extent will vary, depending on the nature of the opposing force. 5

Achieving TACSIT II or III will include the use of local geography, deception, electronic warfare, and other tools. Denying near-comprehensive targeting is a good way to dissuade a potential enemy commander from shooting first, as the conditions for a successful “battle of the first salvo” are not met. Reciprocally, if we are deterred from entering a particular maritime arena because we feel excessively threatened by the prospect of such a battle, the enemy’s goal of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) will have been achieved. Here we are referring to the total force present, which may include several formations and numerous units. Not every unit will be in the same TACSIT at one time, and from an operational perspective, the condition of the total force is of central interest.

Israeli Rear Admiral Yedidia Ya’ari incisively described the logic and physical difficulty of defending against a first salvo in littoral waters: “I argue that when warships designed for the high seas enter the confined waters of the littoral arena, the fundamental relationships of maneuverability and firepower are upset.” He went on to say: “The surface ships now in commission were designed with open ocean and distant defensive perimeters in mind; to keep deploying them to a playing field where, under the most optimistic assumptions, their survival requires as a normal operating mode the highest level of everything , all the time [italics the admiral’s], is unhealthy and unrealistic in the long run.” 6

The Problem of Defense

The key difficulty in conducting force defense in the littoral is lack of space. To establish a layered defense, time and space are needed for detection, tracking, targeting, decisions, and weapons flyout—for each layer. Already compressed in the littoral, time and space are further stolen from the defense by modern, multi-Mach antiship missiles. Automation such as that in the Aegis system can reduce the time and space necessary to engage, but as the case of the tragic Iranian airliner shootdown by the USS Vincennes (CG-48) illustrates, a hair trigger produced by constrained time and space can result in something worse than leakers. Physical defense of units will always be necessary, but in confined waters, in a complex tactical situation with potentially hostile forces intermixed, it cannot be relied on to effectively parry a battle of the first salvo.

With regard to counter-targeting as a potentially effective defense against a preemptive strike, the tenets of all-domain access fit nicely into this function. In today’s modern tactical environment, no single tool such as maneuver or electronic warfare will suffice to deny targeting. To achieve that, actions in all domains, including cyber and space, must be undertaken and synchronized. Moreover, it is one thing to disrupt hostile force targeting on an episodic basis, such as to cover a raid, but quite another to do so on a continuous basis for days or weeks during crisis maneuver. Repeated use of particular methods will educate the enemy, and it will adapt. It is therefore necessary, pre-crisis, to develop a counter-targeting “campaign plan” and/or doctrine for a presumed extended crisis, establishing not only non-repeating sequences of counter-targeting actions, but a sophisticated matrix of conditions that would precipitate counter-targeting moves. It is best not to engage in counter-targeting unless necessary, but of course it must be invoked at the right time, the goal being to forestall an attack rather than to defend against one.

There are several other considerations that should attend counter-targeting planning. The first is whether the onset of counter-targeting actions would send an unintended signal to the opposing force that we are about to conduct a preemptive attack ourselves. At the tactical level, maintaining vulnerability might be a compelling signal of non-hostile intent, and indeed might be ordered by higher authority. Similarly, sound tactical or operational geometry might have to be sacrificed for political purposes, as happened to the 6th Fleet in the 1973 crisis. 7 Political restraints permitting, there are several ways to mitigate the signaling problem. The first is to establish during normal operations a routine doctrine of counter-targeting so that such moves in crisis do not represent a deviation from what the opponent had previously observed. Second, an announced training exercise with allied navies might be used as a cover. However, both of these actions could be easily misinterpreted. A third way is to establish decoy targets, although this might simply serve as a stimulus for preemptive attack. The point is that crisis counter-targeting is fraught with strategic risk even as it reduces tactical risk. It is precisely because of this dichotomy/linkage that an operational-level doctrine for in-fighting must be developed.

Because a crisis situation could last for an indefinite time, the logic of a campaign—an operational-level construct—is involved. To illustrate the problem, let’s imagine a carrier strike group that finds itself in a potential in-fighting situation. All ships would have to remain at some degree of general quarters constantly, depending on the severity of the crisis, and in theory, the air wing would need to fly around the clock, perhaps for days or weeks in order to maintain adequate situational awareness and responsiveness. Combined with relatively constant efforts to remain untargeted, fatigue would set in. Moreover, after a few days, underway replenishment would be required, and counter-targeting efforts would come to a halt. These issues suggest that if a fleet faces a potential in-fighting situation, multiple maneuver units should be available to relieve each other in the contested arena. This in turn suggests that some type of campaign plan be available so all aspects of the operation can be thought through, sequenced, and synchronized to avoid creating inadvertent vulnerability or sending counterproductive, unintended signals.

The complexity, danger, and importance of such naval confrontations clearly demand a joint-force approach to planning and execution. Being fundamentally naval, it is logical that the joint force maritime component commander (JFMCC) have cognizance over planning and execution. The Maritime Operations Center structure the Navy has developed over the past decade is ideally suited to carry out JFMCC responsibilities. Depending on the locus of such operations, there are clear and compelling benefits from the participation of forces of all the services. However, maritime crisis maneuver must not be a “pickup game,” regardless of whether joint-command arrangements have been worked out. Joint training and exercises must be routine. Perhaps more difficult but clearly desirable is to include allied and collaborating navies when and where appropriate and possible. However, none of this can occur without a doctrine of in-fighting to guide it.

Surviving Losses

Now comes examination of the matter of absorbing the first blow. This is not something anyone likes to consider, but we cannot simply assume that efforts to parry will be successful. There are two basic logical components of absorbing a first salvo: staying power and graceful force degradation.

Staying power was a key consideration in the design of battleships. Assuming they would receive hits from the enemy’s major-caliber guns, their armor was designed not to make the ship invulnerable to such hits, but to limit damage for sufficient time that the ship’s own guns could impose greater damage on the enemy. Staying power thus denotes a dynamic time ratio tied to reciprocal destruction. Imbuing a force with staying power is an attempt to at least mitigate the tenet of striking effectively first. After absorbing the first salvo the force has sufficient remaining offensive power to inflict a crippling blow on the enemy.

In dreadnought days, staying power was achieved with thick armor, the ability of gun mounts to function autonomously, and backup and damage-control systems. Modern warship design precludes thick armor and autonomous weapon function, so staying power must be sought in a different way. One possibility is to distribute offensive power into numerous units—a scheme currently being called distributed lethality. 8 Despite the precision and lethality of modern antiship missiles, many things must go right for them to achieve a mission kill on every target. Assuming reasonably effective kinetic and non-kinetic defensive measures, the more targets the enemy must engage, the more will survive.

The goal is to have a force sufficiently numerous to retain enough offensive power for a decisive counterstrike. With a few large units, it is not sufficient for defensive measures to be good; they must be all but perfect, as pointed out by Admiral Ya’ari. In a distributed, numerous force, incremental improvements in defense have real value. When perfection is not the criterion, gradations in defensive effectiveness matter, and luck then tends to favor the larger force.

The second component of successful salvo absorption is graceful force degradation. This simply means that the overall force does not have a single point-of-failure mode. In naval terms this translates into the notion of key ship type. If so much of a force’s offensive power or other key capability is on one or two ships, their loss would unhinge the whole operation. In the 1982 Falklands War, the loss of the cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor , carrying the British Army’s helicopters, almost scuttled the operation. Admiral Sandy Woodward, commander of the British task force, said that the loss of one of his aircraft carriers would have caused him to withdraw. 9

Distributed Power

A force is most effective if its offensive power and function are distributed evenly throughout numerous ships so that losses produce incremental degradation instead of catastrophic. Such optimum distribution is not necessarily feasible in today’s technological environment, but the notion of designing a force less vulnerable to catastrophic degradation must be a key consideration.

The logic of offensive power distribution, with its attendant concepts of staying power and graceful degradation, reaches a point at which individual vessels become consumables rather than capital assets. In the Falklands War, British destroyers and frigates assumed this status in the defense of the landing zone. Having a force or at least a force element that can attain this risk status allows the operational planner some leeway in accepting calculated risk. Admiral Chester Nimitz expressed this in naval terms in his instruction to Rear Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher and Raymond Spruance on the eve of the Battle of Midway. They were to regard the term as meaning that they would not subject their force to loss unless by so doing they had the opportunity to inflict greater loss on the enemy.

An operational commander must connect the strategic and tactical levels of war with an operational logic embedded in his plan. The strategic objective of the campaign or operation must be worth the potential losses required to achieve it. If the fight is over peripheral interests such as, say, an island off the coast of China, then risking one of the Navy’s nuclear-powered carriers may not be commensurate with the objective of defending the island. However, risking aircraft, destroyers, LCSs, and other smaller units may be acceptable.

Operational planning must not assume zero losses. When valid calculated risk is available at the operational level, the National Command Authority will have more options and more confidence during a crisis. 10 A problem faced by fleet commanders throughout much of history was what to do about damaged ships. A realistic operational plan must not only accept the possibility of one or more ships being put out of action but what to do when that happens. 11

As a joint operational capability, naval in-fighting is most relevant in Phase 0 (Shape), Phase 1 (Deter), and Phase 2 (Seize the Initiative). 12 The capability to operate continuously in a potentially contested arena at an acceptable degree of risk is the essence of all-domain access. In Phase 0 a demonstrated capability for in-fighting based on well-developed doctrine and an appropriate force structure would serve to assure threatened allies that the U.S. Navy would not cut and run in the face of a gathering anti-access threat. In addition, such a capability might serve to dampen potential opponents’ enthusiasm for further investment in A2/AD systems, assuming the Navy and wider joint force made timely decisions to develop the capability. Finally, the ability to deploy in threatened waters would allow U.S. units to conduct port visits and training exercises with allies for any number of reasons related to Phase 0 objectives.

The logic of Phase 0 segues into Phase 1, either as a function of the continuation of routine deployment of in-fighting forces as tensions build, or the contingent deployment of them in the event of a fast-breaking crisis. In either case, credible in-fighting capability offers a deterrence-by-denial mechanism that is preferable in most cases to deterrence by threat of punishment, as the stakes are usually higher for the local aggressor than they are for the United States. A credible capability to absorb a first salvo and remain viable as a combat force also complicates enemy decision making. Finally, a capability to survive and disrupt enemy plans, especially if this can be done at sea without having to strike targets in the enemy’s homeland, provides opportunities for escalation control not otherwise available.

An in-fighting capability also provides advantages if the joint force must shift to Phase 2. Another key characteristic that in-fighting forces must have is responsiveness. Once an incoming strike is detected, units must be able to quickly launch a counter-strike even as the enemy’s first salvo is still inbound. However, whether launched before or after a first salvo has arrived, the ability to respond quickly offers tactical, operational, and strategic advantages to the chain of command. In the days of carrier-based antiship strikes, it could take upward of 45 minutes to get a strike organized, rendezvoused, and inbound to the target, even with aircraft already in the air.

‘Inside the Arena’

This author was an attack pilot on board the USS Independence (CV-62) during the 1973 Arab-Israeli crisis and later helped develop antiship tactics. Counterstrikes, assuming the carrier was still operational after the first salvo, required at least five aircraft and normally more. Starting conditions were either aircraft on deck or in the air and dispersed on a cycle launch. In either case, considerable time was required to get the aircraft together in the air and inbound to the target, meaning the carrier was not very responsive.

While there may be political reasons to delay a counterstrike, the inability to get one organized and launched within seconds or at most a couple of minutes provides tactical breathing space for the enemy to prepare. A rapid counterstrike capability offers the opportunity to quickly wrest the initiative from the enemy force and keep it off balance. The obvious tool for maximum responsiveness is missiles. However, if a carrier must be placed in an in-fighting situation, the air wing must be armed with a “scouting missile” and have the necessary doctrine and rules of engagement in place to make it effective. 13

In-fighting is a key joint operational capability for achieving all-domain access. From a naval perspective, a fight could start with U.S. Navy forces inside or outside the arena of contention. Lacking a credible in-fighting capability, the Navy can only contemplate outside-in operations that, while certainly viable with current doctrine and forces, do not provide potentially valuable options in Phases 0 through 2 that in-fighting capability can. Moreover, the danger exists, as the Navy experienced in 1973, that its forces will find themselves inside the arena when a crisis breaks, and being unready to conduct in-fighting, must either abandon the arena or accept excessive levels of risk. The Navy has lived in a power-projection paradise since the fall of the Soviet Union, operating its forces with impunity in constrained waters. The rise of strong A2/AD systems went unaddressed for too long, but the Navy is now beginning to rehabilitate its sea-control skills. However, thus far it has exhibited no indication that it is giving serious thought to the matter of crisis/brink-of-war maneuver in constrained waters that are covered and inhabited by enemy systems and units. It must start now to develop a doctrine of in-fighting and program a force structure that can conduct it effectively. The next crisis featuring intermingled fleets may not blow over peacefully as did the one in 1973.

1. LT Roger Misso, USN, “Sea Power and Fortitude,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 141, no. 4 (April 2015) 58–62.

2. U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Coast Guard, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready , 19–21.

3. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 25.

4. See CAPT Robert C. Rubel, USN (Ret.), “Connecting the Dots: Capital Ships, Command of the Sea, the Littorals and the World Order,” Naval War College Review , vol. 58, no. 4 (Autumn 2015) 46–52.

5. See Lyle Goldstein and Yuri Zhukov, “A Tale of Two Fleets: A Russian Perspective on the 1973 Naval Standoff in the Mediterranean,” Naval War College Review vol. 57, no. 2 (Spring 2004), 27–63.

6. RADM Yedida Ya’ari, Israeli Navy, “The Littoral Arena,” Naval War College Review vol. 48, no. 2 (Spring 1995), 7–21; reprint: Naval War College Review , vol. 67, no. 3 (Summer 2014), quotes on 82, 87.

7. Goldstein and Zhukov, “A Tale of Two Fleets,” 47.

8. VADM Thomas Rowden, RADM Peter Gumataotao, RADM Peter Fanta, USN, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 141, no. 1 (January 2015), 18–23.

9. ADM Sandy Woodward, with Patrick Robinson, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 5.

10. See CAPT Robert C. Rubel, USN (Ret.), “Deconstructing Nimitz’s Principle of Calculated Risk,” Naval War College Review , vol. 67, no. 1 (Winter 2014), 31–45.

11. For a modern illustration of the awkward, complicating problem of a carrier group suffering a hit from a missile, see CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), Chapter 12, “The Battle of the Aegean,” 329–33.

12. Joint Publication 5-0, “Joint Operational Planning,” 11 August 2011, iii–41.

13. CAPT Robert C. Rubel, USN (Ret.), “A Theory of Naval Aviation,” Naval War College Review , vol. 67, no. 3 (Summer 2014), 70–73.

Captain Rubel is professor emeritus at the Naval War College. He is also a retired naval officer who flew light attack and strike-fighter aircraft. Captain Rubel is a graduate of the Spanish and U.S. naval war colleges and has written on a number of operational and strategic naval issues.



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