Embracing the Dark Battle

By Lieutenant (J.G.) Daniel Stefanus, U.S. Navy

To the credit of senior naval leaders, this misstep was recognized as early as 2011 and has begun to change. Emissions control (EMCON) is no longer a nighttime drill known only to bridge and combat information center watchstanders. It has become a crucial aspect of our predeployment certification processes and is being brought to the fleet with renewed emphasis by department heads, executive officers, and commanding officers fresh from advanced leadership and tactical courses. Senior deckplate leaders take electronic warfare (EW) more seriously today than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Dark Battle

Awareness and regard, however, do not win engagements. We must consider and develop our ships’ tactics for this new environment: the “Dark Battle.” The Dark Battle is a framework from which U.S. surface combatants will analyze and develop advanced warfighting tactics in a hostile, EM-spectrum-denied environment. We must learn how to engage with and destroy opposing forces without full use of the EM spectrum in ways not previously seen in naval warfare. Through this mastery, we will complicate the enemy kill chain at every step while permitting the most effective concentration of our own combat power at decisive moments.

Fighting in the Dark Battle is about more than just comprehending EMCON; it is exploiting all aspects of electronic warfare; perfecting sensor activation timing, weapon employment, and battlespace surprise; and maxi­mizing resources for peak endurance in hostile waters. This will require enhanced electronic warfare expertise, more authority for unit commanding officers, extensive tactical experimentation by every warship, in-depth idea sharing, augmented feedback mechanisms, and new tactical paradigms that will come directly from the deckplates.

The submarine and aviation communities are critical partners in this fight, but their specific needs, capabilities, and tactics must be developed within their own communities. This article therefore focuses on the community that is the least agile, most visible, and most likely to take the first shot: the U.S. surface fleet. It discusses why and how ships must embrace the Dark Battle and develop optimal tactics within it as their best means of evading enemy detection, defending themselves, and striking hostile forces in an EM-spectrum-denied environment.

One need only return to the annals of World War II to see the seeds of the Dark Battle concept and its enduring relevance. Before the war, the Imperial Japanese Navy had foreseen the importance of nocturnal warfare and had honed its talent for such battles. On the night of 14 November 1942, the Japanese pressed this unique advantage on the battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57) as a massive system outage rendered her radars useless in the middle of the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Blinded and unprepared, the South Dakota was subjected to a devastating series of salvos from the battlecruiser Kirishima until rescued by the guns of the USS Washington (BB-56). 1

Our development of the Dark Battle is equivalent to the Japanese Navy’s night fighting. Whereas others see danger and seek avoidance, we must see opportunity and seek mastery. Just like night engagements, emissions-denied battles will be inevitable in our era, and when they occur, rather than having skirted a thorny complication or sought retreat, we will seize the conditions and surprise our opponents with innovative and decisive tactics.

To evolve our tactics for the Dark Battle, we must use sophisticated emissions-denied tactics borne of extensive experimentation, intellectual rigor, and knowledge sharing. It is a mind-set in which a comprehensive understanding of the EM spectrum; combat, navigation, and engineering systems; battlespace psychology; and environmental factors will determine the victor. The units that best understand the complexities of the EM spectrum and have mastered the intersections of its nuances with their systems will devastate those unable to cope with the limitations of emissions-denied environments.

The Dark Battle’s Lessons Must Be Learned From the Deckplates

In distributed lethality we preach up-gunning, decentralizing, and deceiving. 2 Embracing the Dark Battle is the culmination of these ideas: Tin Can Sailor meets Silicon Chip Warrior. This article cannot encompass the full breadth and depth of tactical development across our surface fleet; instead, it is a call to action, a call to advance those tactics and procedures already developed with the cold hard truths of experience at sea. Shore commands and other organizations developing these tactics have the best intentions—and many great ideas—but it is imperative that we aggressively scale up how often we practice electronic warfighting and the other components of the Dark Battle at sea with warships. Every combatant must be experimenting and pushing the limits of existing tactics in emissions-denied environments.

To prevail in the Dark Battle we first must hone the fundamentals, such as the time it takes to set various EMCON conditions and the fidelity of what we have set. We can and will master these checklist tasks with ease—but so will our opponents. It is in the next step, employing advanced tactics in an emissions-denied environment, where we can best showcase our strengths and outclass our adversaries. There are many flavors of naval tactics; these only multiply given the tremendous opportunities nestled within the EM spectrum. If all of the Navy’s surface combatants and their crews act as Petri dishes for experimentation, funneling ideas, best practices, and lessons learned to tactical staffs, the Navy Warfighting Development Center, and the Navy Surface and Mine Warfare Development Center, then we can be the architects of the next generation of naval warfare. These principles, a direct execution of the Chief of Naval Operations’ concept of high-velocity learning, will provide the Navy with a monopoly on the most innovative and imaginative maritime tactics in the world if we press our many cultural and technological advantages. 3

Expand EW Knowledge in Training pipelines

Critical baseline steps have been taken, such as integrating EMCON transits and other EW operations into work-up cycles. However, we must go beyond simple technical applications and find the tactical heart of the EM spectrum. To do this we must aggressively expand electronic warfare training in our ascension and preparedness pipelines, so officers and enlisted professionals at all levels understand the EM spectrum and its tactical opportunities at a deep level.

Our training schools must dramatically increase the time spent on electronic warfare in a shrewd, technical sense. If war­fighters understand the scientific laws and principles that undergird EW, they will be more adept at toying with the boundaries and exploiting the opportunities of the spectrum. Moreover, they must be taught the latest sensor and weapon employment ideas, as well as more experimental tactical theories that could yield advances in warfighting. With such a broad understanding of the EM spectrum, complex tactics and ideas not only can be developed at the unit level, but also can quickly spread across the fleet as fellow sailors grasp their compatriots’ thinking and the science that buttresses it.

Furnish the Fleet with More EW Officers

Beyond augmenting existing training pipelines, we need to introduce electronic warfare warfighting tactics instructors (WTIs) through the Surface and Mine Warfare Development Center to the surface Navy. The WTI program has proved enormously popular throughout the fleet and has produced a cadre of expert warfighters who bolster our surface combatants’ tactical prowess while also advancing the boundaries of what is possible in combat. As the WTI program expands, and the fleet’s tactics evolve and intensify, we need electronic warriors joining the front lines.

By establishing an EW WTI program, the Navy would prove its commitment to innovative warfighting on the deckplates and signal where our future lies. EW WTIs would be at the pinnacle of tactical development for their warfare area, ensuring the very highest EW expertise throughout the surface fleet. They also would be able to quickly share and develop ideas across platforms as they work together to create and refine our tactics and capabilities in the Dark Battle. Having EW WTIs on board ships would ensure EW is not relegated to the sidelines in operations and training cycles as they explain and advocate for innovative cross-warfare tactics, especially in the Dark Battle.

However, one junior officer per ship is not enough to bring such a profound paradigm shift to the surface fleet. The newly established plans and tactics officer (PTO) should subsume the role as the ship’s electronic warfare officer (EWO), responsible for expanding training, awareness, and tactical experimentation. He or she would be in charge of the EW WTI and work with him or her and the cryptologic technicians to ensure the concepts of the Dark Battle are prioritized in the ship’s training and operational schedules. By marrying EW to the PTO, the Navy would further establish the importance of both the PTO construct and EW in fleet operations. The PTO would remain a flexible position, malleable to the ship and its commanding officer’s needs, but it would have an EW anchor, ensuring that at the department head level EW is represented and advocated for as the ship advances through the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) cycle.

Leverage Our CO and Sailors’ Ingenuity

Once these three training and manning pillars are established, we can progress to the next stage of Dark Battle proficiency through the great hallmark of the U.S. Navy: tactical innovation and creativity in command. Commanding officers and their warfighting teams must lead the charge to develop tactics and understanding of the Dark Battle as they will be the men and women at the tip of the spear, destroying and evading highly complex missiles and units. They must be the ones who live and breathe the intricacies of EMCON and the role of EW in future wars. This is a mind-set, a tactical evolution, one that cannot be developed solely through the traditional warfighting development channels and publications like Naval Tactics, Training, and Procedures manuals and Naval Warfare Publications.

Comprehending the Dark Battle and fleshing out new tactics and procedures will be an art as much as it is a science; it must not become another checklist task. Unlike other forms of warfare that conform well to rigid procedures and preplanned responses, EW requires innovation, understanding, and spontaneous adaptation as weather conditions, unknown foreign systems, and complications with organic systems cloud decision making and options. Critical, open minds are essential. All of this means that experimentation with the Dark Battle must be a true team effort. Commanding officers will be indispensable in this process, and they must foster an innovative tactical community in which all voices are heard. Rank must not drown out ideas in this cutting-edge, 21st century warfighting environment. We must explore each other’s ideas, embrace alternatives, and seek specificity.

Adapt to a Communications-Denied Environment

A key but still underdeveloped tenet of distributed lethality is devolving more warfighting decisions down to the unit level with well-understood commander’s intent. Reducing outdated chains of command and overly bureaucratic, layered decision making will be necessary in the Dark Battle as communications will be extremely limited. Therefore, prosecuting the Dark Battle will come down to proper and effective commander’s intent.

Truly understanding conflict-level commander’s intent means long, complex tactical discussions among admirals, commodores, commanding officers, and tactical action officers. PowerPoint slides and messages in traffic will not be sufficient. Subordinate warfighters need to be certain of their commander’s thinking, perspective, and permission thresholds on a granular level, so they can fight properly once communications go dark. This level of knowledge and understanding requires an intimate relationship that differs starkly from the bureaucratic distance that currently divides staffs and units. Work-up cycles must be adjusted to facilitate this, with admirals and commodores spearheading efforts to connect with their subordinate commanders and tactical decision makers at the deepest levels.

Tactical Development Led By All Ranks

When commanding officers are imbued with a deeper understanding of commander’s intent and more authority for decentralized execution, they can better moderate and guide Dark Battle tactical developments on their ships. However, PTOs and their WTIs should lead the charge by engaging watchstanders with the latest tactics and EW ideas in real-world exercises. Hot wash debriefs can glean the crucial lessons of the day and begin deep dives into those lessons and their applications. Tactical action officers and other combat watchstanders must be able to have tactical development sessions with the WTIs and PTOs, and then execute those ideas in real-life scenarios. Internal tactical idea contests can be held, with winners rewarded by commanding officers with extra liberty and other free, discretionary prizes for brilliant warfighting developments.

Going from ideas to execution must be swift and avoid bureaucratic entanglements. This must be a deckplate initiative fueled by sailors and junior officers producing the raw results that senior leadership can run with and refine. Sailors must be incentivized to imagine, write, create, and develop novel concepts that leverage their intimate knowledge of technical systems and U.S. naval combat tactics.

Mastering the Dark Battle and the tactics within will take time and significant mental and experiential effort. There must be intensive and extensive combat scenarios that bend thinking, stretch preplanned responses, and reveal weaknesses in current tactics. We must not silo warfare areas in these exercises; they must be as real-to-life as possible. Furthermore, experimentation will be most fruitful when done with other units, as blue forces can best probe each other’s defenses and tactics across the spectrum.

Ships should organically plan and execute realistic wargames with each other using red cell support and joint assets to “up the stakes.” Warfighters should examine the real-life effects of various meaconing, intrusion, jamming, interference (MIJI) and other spectrum-denied conditions, as well as atmospherics, sea-state, and other environmentals that could dramatically affect the outcome of a battle.

Within these exercises we can and will discover how to rig the game in our favor, such as by experimenting with sensor activation and engagement. For example, how quickly can we go from “system online” to find, fix, target, and fire, and then “system offline.” If we can get this down to a science and engage in just a few seconds of “on” time, we can revolutionize modern warfare by engaging so quickly that we can remain shrouded in the fog of war. If crews can take a marginal, methodical approach to eliminating every possible source of friction in the process, then we can at least attain ultra-high proficiency in setting various EMCON levels, if not even perfecting this seconds-long on-engage-off process. Leveraging joint and allied assets’ sensors will prove key to this tactic: to engage in mere seconds, we must know where the enemy is.

All of this is necessary because current adversaries have significant advantages in weapon engagement ranges. 4 While we work on ameliorating our shortfalls, we must become experts at quickly closing range, striking, and disappearing. Becoming lethal shadows will be the initial core offensive doctrine of the Dark Battle: EMCON, illuminate, fire, return to EMCON, withdraw, reload. Opponents must not have a complete understanding of who is where, how many units are involved, what those units are doing, and when they will act. The veil of ambiguity will be the key to victory in future conflicts. Confound and conquer.

Auxiliary tactics will be equally important in shaping the battlespace and sustaining our units’ ability to engage hostiles. We need to examine how to bend the spectrum and manipulate our sensors to surprise maritime militias and all “non” combatants that could foil our operations in highly contested battlespaces. We must optimize energy usage to conduct strikes swiftly while keeping fuel reserves at reasonable levels. Similarly, we need to perfect silent emission replenishments at sea with U.S. Naval Ship (USNS) vessels. Creative deception and employment tactics in these supporting missions will give the Navy the dexterity and unpredictability that will win future wars.

Boost Feedback and Knowledge Sharing

All these ideas will be tested and evaluated at the unit level, but it cannot stop there. We must strengthen existing knowledge-sharing mechanisms, especially on the deckplates. If these fluid experiments are to turn into decisive tactics, they must be seen by fighting eyes across the fleet. To that end, we need to amalgamate all of our units’ data and research.

PTOs and WTIs would be the best keepers of this crucial information. From them, individual units’ ideas, results, and tactical developments would be passed up to our warfighting development apparatus, with the Navy Warfighting Development Center and the Navy Surface and Mine Warfare Development Center as the principal agents of analysis and development. These centers will take the collective wisdom and lessons of the surface fleet’s tactical explorations and refine them into approachable yet bleeding-edge tactics that can be quickly digested by surface warriors. Semiannual Dark Battle symposiums, much like Distributed Lethality Summits, would bring surface warfighters from across the fleet into the same, classified space to share and expound on their experiences, triggering a chain reaction of ideas and sowing the seeds of continued tactical innovation.

Incorporate New Ideas In Future Equipment

For us to be most effective in the Dark Battle, we must be sure to incorporate the lessons of its warfighters into new equipment and combatant development. Adhoc tactics will become much more robust with systems more closely attuned to battlefield realities and warfighter needs. To ensure this happens, senior naval, technical, and congressional leaders must be informed of the advances in EW tactics and integrated 21st-century battlespace operations, so they are funded and developed at the proper levels. We must ensure our warfighters have the best EW systems to detect, counter, and attack enemy EW suites. We must either dominate the spectrum or create the mutually denied EM environment that will likely become the norm as highly technologically advanced navies clash.

Examples of other possible Dark Battle-based developments could include more modular EW packages for innovative uses and combinations; advanced EW drones for sensing, jamming, and deceiving; and high-speed, stealth refueling vessels to support our lethal shadows. Alongside equipment, we need more institutional support for efforts connecting sailors, scientists, and rapid funding, such as initiatives that react quickly to tactical and technological developments like the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell and Maritime Accelerated Capabilities Office; naval innovation organizations such as the Athena Project and Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG); and other efforts that spotlight grassroots ideas and connect warfighters and researchers.

Understanding and mastering the Dark Battle is a necessary paradigm shift that will ensure the U.S. Navy’s continued dominance of battlespaces across the globe. By tapping into our enormous human and institutional capital, we will experiment, develop, and pioneer a new age of warfare. If every surface unit undertakes the Dark Battle challenge, and we pool our lessons learned to advance our collective knowledge, then expertise in the Dark Battle will become our forte and calling card. Our adaptability, ingenuity, and gusto are the best in the world, we must leverage them. Don’t be afraid of the Dark.

1. David H. Lippman, “Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Turning Point in the Pacific War,” HistoryNet, 12 June 2006.

2. Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, U.S. Navy, et al., “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141, no. 1343 (January 2015).

3. Admiral John Richardson, U.S. Navy, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” 5 January 2016.

4. Dave Mujumdar, “Revealed: U.S. Warships Dangerously Outgunned by Russia and China,” 11 December 2015, nationalinterest.org/blog.


Lieutenant (J.G.) Stefanus is a surface warfare officer who commissioned from the Duke NROTC Unit. He now serves as the assistant operations officer for Amphibious Squadron 6 in Norfolk, Virginia.


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