With accelerating advances in information capabilities, some profess that information dominance is not only a critical force multiplier to warfighting, it is warfighting.1 Such a bold proclamation harkens back to the 1990s when network-centric warfare was heralded as a revolution in military affairs akin to the rifled barrel and machine gun. While significant advances across the electromagnetic spectrum have indeed transpired, so have the associated vulnerabilities and risks. Expensive and fragile infrastructure, single points of failure, and a heavy reliance on civilian vendors to maintain the patchwork of networked vital organs result in a questionable ability to defend the most critical communication assets—or to win in a contested electromagnetic environment.
To mitigate risk and maximize effectiveness against a high-end adversary, the Navy should approach information warfare from a different angle. Mission command needs to become foundational in the pursuit of information dominance. In short, the Navy must embrace innovative and perhaps uncomfortable command-and-control (C2) practices to ensure success across the electromagnetic domain.
Meet the Enabler
Mission command, as defined by Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations, is “the conduct of military operations through decentralized execution based upon mission-type orders. Successful mission command demands that subordinate leaders at all echelons exercise disciplined initiative and act aggressively and independently to accomplish the mission.”
When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey revealed his Joint Force 2020 vision in his 2012 Mission Command White Paper, many were quick to assert that his C2 concept was nothing new, as the U.S. Navy has always led the way in decentralized execution. After all, the Navy’s history is rich with examples of captains sailing over the horizon with broad orders to bring back gold and treasure without starting any new wars or to quite simply, seek out and destroy the enemy. Perhaps such colorful illustrations are of lore and legend, but nevertheless, the Navy prides itself on a culture steeped in subordinate trust and independence. These traits are often attributed to the Navy’s span of operations that have in many cases outdistanced the communications capabilities of the day.
During the Cold War, the Combined Warfare Commander (CWC) C2 model emerged as a method to counter the multidimensional Soviet threat. Though never tested in combat, the CWC concept was thought to be the most effective way to enable decentralized execution against a very capable adversary. Though primarily designed to protect large carrier battle groups, the CWC concept endures today as the preferred method to negate threats in dynamic, hostile environments—at the tactical level. At the operational level, however, the Navy fails to effectively orchestrate decentralized execution and arguably subordinate trust. The primary reasons for this are twofold: First, there is a fundamental misunderstanding as to the true meaning and relevance of the levels of war—especially in terms of C2 alignment. And second, there is an insatiable hunger for information pulled from the tactical level to feed layers of command all the way up to the strategic—because we can.
Levels of War, Not Staff
Considering the mismatch between a relatively small number of maritime assets today in any given theater and the layers of staffs who control them, the Navy over time has become far more centralized in planning, execution, and most important, control of its forces. Complicating the Navy’s ability for C2 through decentralizing execution is a confusion between the meanings of “levels of war” and “levels of command.” The three basic levels of war—strategic, operational, and tactical—are just those, levels of war and not levels of command (or staff). Milan Vego, in his operational-warfare compendium for commanders and planners explains, “Levels of war exist in time of conflict and war and deal exclusively with the employment of military and non-military power to achieve specific military objectives, whereas levels of command exist in time of peace and war.”2 Though often congruent, levels of war and levels of command are not identical, a subtle but important distinction. Accurately differentiating between the levels of war is more than doctrinal nuance. It has profound implications in the Navy’s ability to execute decentralized operations through mission command.
In general, Navy leaders seem to have experienced an awakening since Operation Desert Storm in appreciating the relevance of operational art. But many have become overly enamored with the notion that the operational level of war is where all the important stuff happens. A fascination with this level has emerged, yet the concept is widely misunderstood. The Navy has even institutionalized a standardized Maritime Operations Center (MOC) concept with the underlying but false premise that all MOCs function primarily at the operational level of war. The problem is that the Navy has a strong propensity to equate the level of command with the level of war regardless of whether operations are occurring in peacetime or during hostilities. What is most often missed is that ultimately it’s the specific military objective(s) that determines the level of war. Only when military objectives are clearly articulated (and actually exist) can the related levels of war, methods of employing combat forces and the establishment of corresponding levels of command be determined.3 In other words, the level of war is by no means static or dependent on the number of stars one wears on his or her shoulders.
Through this lens it becomes apparent that during peacetime operations (or Phase 0, as it’s often referred to), and for most conceivable maritime contingencies, today’s Navy most often functions at the tactical level writ large. And, instead of distinct levels of C2 anchored on military objectives parsed at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war, what exists in reality are layers upon layers of operational-level controllers (e.g., senior-level staffs) all manipulating relatively small numbers of maritime assets—for tactical employment. What’s lost in this misalignment is an emphasis on the maritime component commander’s role in developing and synchronizing fleet tactics required to effectively fight the maritime force—which is critical for achieving operational-level objectives. Only when the Navy matches its vertical alignment with the actual levels of war can it develop the C2 architectures and processes to truly leverage mission command in order to prevail against a varsity opponent—especially at the operational level of war.
Who can forget the iconic photo of President Barack Obama and his closest advisers as they watched in awe as the raid to capture Osama Bin Laden unfolded through real-time, play-by-play video feeds? Leaders today demand more and more information to monitor, and in some cases influence, tactical events. In his white paper, General Dempsey cautions:
In a networked-enabled force, the commander can easily penetrate to the lowest level of command and take over the fight. This is dangerous for a number of reasons. No C2 technology has ever successfully eliminated the fog of war, but it can create the illusion of perfect clarity (and the illusion of control) from a distance. This can lead to micromanagement, a debilitating inhibitor of trust at the lower echelons of the force.4
If the Navy is going to be effective in electromagnetic maneuver, it must wean itself off the addiction to constant information drawn from the unit level to feed higher headquarters’ insatiable demands for tactical-level situational awareness.
In fairness, it is often not the intent of senior leaders to use all available information conduits to micromanage events, but rather to respond to the demands of the 24-hour news cycle that often drives political decisions. Nevertheless, the results are the same. Not only does this practice neuter trust between commanders and subordinates, it stifles decentralized execution by paralyzing initiative. The relentless demand for detailed information from senior staffs is not simply a distraction; it changes the very fabric of C2. Granted, there is a valid need for commanders at all levels to share a common operating picture so decisions can be made in response to enemy actions or changing conditions. However, if the intent of information extraction is not to adjust plans, reapportion forces, or to counter enemy moves, then what purpose does this really serve? It seems the answer all too often is the implied (or even specified, in many cases) requirement for all levels to know specifically what’s going on at any given moment to satisfy the next layer of command’s similar information requirements. This characterization makes for an interesting case study in organizational efficiency, but in future conflicts, could very well prove disastrous. It’s quite possible that the Navy could face an adversary in the not-too-distant future that not only has the ability to disrupt critical communications, but can also deploy non-kinetic fires to its advantage. The first time commanders find themselves in a communications vacuum as a result of such actions is not the time to be figuring out the processes needed to stay plugged into the fight.
Back to Basics
The need to more aptly apply the basic principles of operational warfare is not to succeed at doctrine jeopardy, but to ensure C2 alignments that best leverage mission-command concepts. This is important so the commander’s intent and subsequent mission-type orders can be crafted at the right level, with the right content to enable decentralized execution to achieve specific objectives. The challenges to prioritize, align, and synchronize tactical actions in multi-domain combat operations are daunting. Without a C2 framework designed to align with the appropriate levels of war, it’s extremely difficult to execute the effective and nimble battle rhythm required to harmonize disparate tactical actions to achieve operational-level objectives.This is especially true in the case of an adversary with the ability to inhibit electromagnetic freedom of action. It will take innovation, education, training, practice, discipline, and most of all trust in subordinate commanders to get this right.
While many would equate innovation with the implementation of game-changing technology, an equally powerful component of innovation are concepts that incorporate new tactics, techniques, and procedures that enable game-changing effects. While mission command is not a radical concept in theory, instilling the culture to execute it in today’s Navy is. However, a look to the past reveals that the Navy knows how to do it, as mission command was instrumental in achieving victory the last time the Navy fought at the operational level of war.
During the World War II Pacific campaign, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s execution of OPLAN 8-44 was straightforward despite the breadth and depth of Allied forces needed to achieve theater objectives against a numerically superior and very capable enemy. While not formally recognized as such, mission command was evident as Nimitz’s orders conveyed broad guidance with an underlying assumption that commanders could be trusted to execute them, because they were competent and shared an understanding of the operational objectives based on commander’s intent.5 Orders such as “In case of opportunity for destruction of major portions of the enemy fleet is offered or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task” were the norm.6 Nimitz did not require reams of detailed operational concepts from subordinate commanders scrutinized by layers of staff to ensure success.
To infuse mission command at the operational level of war today requires the Navy to take a step back and recalibrate its understanding of what this actually looks like. An example that comes to mind is the new U.S. Pacific Command living C2 concept that spawned the Theater Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (TJFMCC) structure in the Pacific. Though not specific to doctrine but designed for the operational level of war, the TJFMCC can be called on to conduct simultaneous joint maritime operations involving multiple maneuvering forces (e.g., fleets) in a widely dispersed theater of operations. It’s inconceivable that the Pacific TJFMCC can be successful in such a role unless he adopts mechanisms based on mission-type orders similar to those of his World War II predecessor. But make no mistake, the apparent simplicity of such orders does not mean they are easy to develop or implement, especially since they are rarely used today.
The driving imperative for senior leaders, especially at the operational level of war, is to match ends with means and then select “the ways” through subordinate design, and then, most importantly, rely on subordinate commanders to execute. The larger the scale of the objectives, the more critical and difficult it is to harmonize all the steps (i.e., ends, ways, and means) in order to achieve operational effects.7 Simply stated, the critical path is to identify where and when the operational level of war exists and then develop the plans, C2, and ultimately mission- type orders to achieve objectives required to meet a strategic end state.
Assured C2: The Promised Land
The Navy has made tremendous strides in communications, computers, collaboration, and intelligence, particularly in the past decade. Advances in satellite communications, data fusion, knowledge management, network operations, and integrated fires have been remarkable. It’s hard to think of a component of naval operations not wedded to some sort of cyber network. The essence of the Navy’s information-dominance strategy calls for robust and agile C2, superior knowledge of the operating domain, and the ability to project power through integrated kinetic and non-kinetic means. In his July 2014 Proceedings piece, Vice Admiral Ted Branch refers to these elements as the “pillars of information dominance,” more aptly defined as assured C2, battlespace awareness, and integrated fires.8 It’s no secret that with advances in information capabilities comes a level of vulnerability and dependency, and therefore the need for resilient and survivable C2 nodes. However, achieving assured C2 is a long way off. And, there are more than a few potential adversaries capable of wreaking havoc today in even the most hardened communications systems.
At first glance it might appear counterintuitive, but as the Navy advances the capabilities to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum, it must also adopt concepts centered on decreased reliance and measured utilization of these very capabilities. This is critical to operate in the contested electromagnetic arena and to maintain a defensive advantage as assured C2 concepts mature. Also, measured utilization ensures the ability to achieve surprise to keep adversaries off balance as they become more reliant on netted communications and electronic warfare. Though enhancements such as the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services initiative and the Virtual Secure Enclave are a leap in the right direction in improving resiliency, these capabilities (and others like them) are not projected to be fully incorporated in the Fleet for many years. Bottom line: Assured C2 is a complicated and expensive proposition—and likely never fully achievable.
Rebuilding Varsity Warfighting
In the integrated-fires pillar of information dominance, more specifically electronic warfare (EW), the Navy seems to be in a tail chase as it struggles to meet emerging threats. During the Cold War, it was common for the Navy to conduct complex, emission-free operations to ensure tactical advantage against the powerful Soviet Navy. A disciplined electronic climate was the standard up to the fall of the Soviet Union. In the ensuing years, however, maritime core competencies like EW took a backseat to irregular warfare and support for ground-centric wars in the Mideast. With an emergent near-peer’s impressive advances in their maritime capabilities, and the resurgence of a powerful potential adversary, the Navy has been scrambling to refocus its efforts on core disciplines such as antisubmarine and EW, to name a few. The good news is the Navy is awakening from its warfighting slumber. During exercises in the Pacific, more and more events are being conducted that showcase a revival of EW capabilities and tactics.
Even more impressive is that after recognizing its edge in EW had atrophied, the Navy has begun a full-court press to regain the electromagnetic high ground through its maneuver-warfare campaign plan. What’s most important about this initiative is that it does not simply identify the need for improved capabilities, systems, and tactics but addresses enabling concepts focused on measured utilization of the electromagnetic spectrum. Captain Rob Gamberg, lead for the implementation of the Navy’s electronic maneuver-warfare strategy, gets it right when he says:
In both civilian and military networks today, the default is everyone’s connected, and transmitting . . . all the time. On submarines, by contrast, the default is that you’re dark, you don’t transmit, you’re not connected, you emit as little as possible. Every time submariners do something that makes noise, they must make a conscious tactical decision of the risks involved. That’s the kind of mindset that air and surface combatants must apply to all electromagnetic emissions.9
It appears the Navy is well on its way to reestablishing EW primacy at the tactical level. However, what’s needed is a sense of urgency to fully exploit advantages gained through emerging EW capabilities by instilling mission command as a key enabler.
Trust as a Weapon
It’s perhaps paradoxical that the biggest risk many see in adopting mission command is empowering subordinates to make decisions and to act without a running dialogue with superiors—even though today’s Navy has arguably the most professional and capable leaders in its history (despite what Navy Times might suggest). To minimize this risk, commanders at the highest levels need to find ways to connect with those executing their intent. In an era of bullet-centric PowerPoint briefs and schedules driven by 15-minute Outlook blocks, senior commanders are often challenged to develop the close relationships with their more junior commanders needed to “operationalize” the mutual trust critical for enabling the mission-command concept.
One of history’s greatest admirals, Horatio Nelson, intuitively understood the importance of mutual trust. In August 1798, just before the Battle of the Nile, where he faced an armada of French warships, Nelson gathered his captains together on his flagship to ensure they clearly understood his expectations. Though his primary motive was to ensure his intent was clear, he was also interested in their ideas as to how best execute the fight ahead. Though the ensuing engagement was not without problems, as one of his ships ran aground while maneuvering for position, ultimately Nelson prevailed despite almost no communications with his captains once the battle commenced.10 While this vignette might not seem relevant in the era of modern warfare, Nelson succeeded because he knew his commanders and trusted them to carry out his intent even when the stakes were high—certainly a timeless example of mission command at its best.
To enable mission command requires a culture that leverages the Navy’s superb cadre of planners, operators, and commanders. In General Dempsey’s words:
Mission command is commander-centric. To the commander comes the mission for the unit; in the commander resides the authority to act and to lead so that the mission can be accomplished. The missions given to subordinates must be within their capabilities; the commander must understand what his subordinates can do, and trust them to do it. In its highest state, shared context and understanding is implicit and intuitive between hierarchal and lateral echelons of command, enabling decentralized and distributed formations to perform as if they were centrally coordinated. When achieved, these practices result in decentralized formal decision-making throughout the force, leading implicitly to the opportunity to gain advantageous operational tempo over adversaries.11
To dominate the information realm, the Navy must truly embrace mission command enabled by trusted commanders at all levels through proper C2 alignment. This, along with judicious use of the electronic spectrum and sound tactical doctrine, employment, and training, is ultimately what will unleash the true power of electromagnetic maneuver warfare.
1. VADM Ted N. Branch, USN, “A New Era in Naval Warfare,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 7 (July 2014), 19.
2. Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 2009), II-18.
3. Ibid., II-19
4. GEN Martin E. Dempsey, USA, Mission Command White Paper, (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, April 2012), 7.
5. “War Plans and Files of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet” Nimitz Gray Book, vol. 4 of 8, www.ibiblio.org/anrs/docs/Volumes/Nimitz_Graybook%20Volume%204.pdf.
6. Edwin P. Hoyt, The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Death Knell of the Japanese Fleet (New York: Weybright & Talley, 1972) 2, 21.
7. Vego, Joint Operational Warfare, II-20.
8. Branch, “A New Era in Naval Warfare,” 19.
9. Sydney Freeberg Jr., “Navy Forges New EW Strategy: Electromagnetic Warfare,” Air, Sea, Strategy & Policy, October 2014, 3.
10. John T. Kuehn, “Nelson, Mission Command, and the Battle of the Nile,”16 Cases of Mission Command (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2014), 34.
11. Dempsey, Mission Command White Paper, 4.