A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight

By Admiral Scott H. Swift, U.S. Navy

Preparing for fleet-level campaigns against a peer competitor will requre the Navy to play with longer time horizons than it is used to, incorporate resilient logistics capabilities, and test the assumptions of combat support agencies to stand with the fleet. Here a Marine MV-22 prepares to land on board the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70)

Watch the (Time) Horizon

Throughout most of a naval officer’s career, command feels like flying an aircraft. The controls are within reach, the linkage between thought and action is close, and the feedback loop clear and direct. Fleet command is more like conning a ship. Every action is indirect, and not only do your hands never touch the controls, in some cases you are not even on the same deck as the levers that move the rudder or throttles. That distance is not a bug in the system, but a design feature to be embraced and leveraged. When handled properly, that distance disciplines commanders to be deliberate in choosing the time horizon for thought and action and in planning, executing, and assessing operations.

I talk often about fleets working at the operational level of war. OLW sometimes is defined in terms of scope of action or breadth of authority but its most essential characteristic is time. No fleet commander can afford to be focused narrowly on the here and now. That timeframe is the preserve of CSG and expeditionary strike group (ESG) commanders and below. The fleet must extend its thinking into the future. How far depends on the situation, but my experience is that under combat conditions, 96 hours is an absolute minimum. This time is driven principally by the need to provide subordinate commanders some space to plan operations and the reality that high-end adversary capabilities demand choreographed employment of exquisite, low-density capabilities to enable risk-appropriate maneuver. Forcing actions to execute inside this timeline sub-optimizes capabilities that are not within the control of the naval maneuver forces. At the outer edge, the fleet commander should be thinking at least 30 but as far as 90 days into the future.

This is all easy to say, but we have enshrined 100 little habits that pull fleet commanders back into the here and now—starting with our fleet command centers (FCCs). Usually, FCCs are built around a “knowledge wall.” With our staff elements arrayed around it like chairs around the TV in a family living room, the centerpiece of this shrine is the common operational picture (COP), offering a God’s-eye, ground-truth view of the battlespace. This is our cultural comfort zone. Of course, we know that every COP is imperfect, but often the uncertainty behind them—locations, time-late contacts, target information—is lost behind the cleanliness of the display. Besides, we are much more comfortable focusing on the knowns, while minimizing the unknowns. Human nature is to anchor on what we have seen, even if intellectually we know it is ambiguous. At best, the common operational picture reveals what has happened in the recent past and displays a situation that the fleet commander has little ability to directly impact. The commander must discipline himself and his staff to move beyond it, to the uncertain realm of the future, something the COP does not display. In doing so, we move past the objective, measured realm of the science of warfare and into the subjective, uncertain realm of the art of warfare.

Increasing the focus on the cognitive domain pushes the commander toward building the close warfighting-focused relationships with subordinate commanders that are essential to developing an appreciation of each other’s strengths and weaknesses (both organizational and personal). This level of mutual understanding empowers subordinates to carry out operations with little oversight and to offer forceful back-up to both their adjacent and up-echelon commanders. It also relieves the fleet staff of the requirement to oversee closely tactical-level operations, freeing the staff to think about unanticipated threat courses of action and alternative friendly courses of action.

Ultimately, our goal is not to create perfect situational awareness, but rather to leverage the most important commodity to a commander—time—to think through multiple concepts of operations (ConOps) which can be used to jump start subordinate planning as battlefield conditions and objectives become more apparent. In the cognitive domain, time is a catalyst that, when mixed with a proper bit of trust, experience, intelligence, and planning, is a recipe for creating asymmetric options and controlling tempo on the modern maritime battlefield.

Admiral Chester Nimitz (right) - here with Admirals Raymond Spruance (left) and Ernest King (center) - demonstrated the essence of mission command when he sent his subordinate commanders into battle at Midway armed with his commander's intent and then resisted the urge to micromanage the fight. 

Embrace Uncertainty

Winning in war is about who fails less; losing in war is about who fails more. The art of warfare is forcing more failure on your enemy than can be forced on you. This is what the CNO refers to as the core attribute of toughness.

Moving our decision making into the future is uncomfortable. Ambiguity and uncertainty increase as we move from the tactical to operational level. Many commanders never fully appreciate that this uncertainty needs to be their native terrain. Professor Milan Vego, who has taught operational art to three generations of our Navy, captured the current conundrum well:

". . . emphasis on obtaining a complete picture of the situation is highly unrealistic. Such a picture is not only difficult but in most cases impossible to achieve, and the expectation of it is fraught with many dangers. . . . One of the distinguishing traits of the successful commander is the ability to act quickly on incomplete knowledge of the situation. . . . This is especially the case at the operational and higher levels, where one’s commanders are forced to make some assumptions about not only the current situation but also trends several weeks or even months ahead."2

History bears out Professor Vego’s observations. If we ask for a weather report, we expect some uncertainty. If we embark on a voyage, we ask for a weather forecast, recognizing that certainty is unrealistic. Why do we not accept the same uncertainty when predicting future operational outcomes? One persistent example I have often seen is that planners tie themselves in knots trying to measure how much of an adversary we need to destroy to move from one phase of operations to another, ignoring the fact that no navy has enjoyed the level of insight into the adversary necessary to know that figure with precision. Warships are resilient, and their crews are often highly motivated to save the platform that is their home and to fight, and many times win, against overwhelming odds. The number of adversary ships destroyed is almost universally less than estimated. Despite its recurrence, that truth is often tremendously unpopular. During World War II, the British Admiralty relieved the Director of Naval Intelligence in part because Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought his estimates of German U-boat losses pessimistic and defeatist. In fact, they were vastly optimistic.3 Yet we plan and conduct exercises as if we will be able to solve this perennial problem.

Intelligence teams that are relegated to providing “battlespace awareness” will underperform at the OLW, if only because the pursuit of the perfect COP comes with an opportunity cost in time and effort that cannot be devoted to the analysis of alternatives needed to be predictive. The role of intelligence at the OLW is a topic for another article, but it is clear that the fleet commander who looks to naval intelligence for such precision will be disappointed and underuse this critical tool. Worse, when the commander’s expectations are not met, if past remains prologue, the failure will be blamed on the intelligence chief (N2 or J2), not the commander’s lack of operational vision.

Making uncertainty a familiar companion requires training, largely at the captain to rear admiral (O-6 to O-8) level. In the Pacific, our best tool for this learning is the Fleet Problem series—a high-end, 100-percent free-play scenario against a red team constrained only by the capabilities of our real-world adversaries. Unlike current strike group training, the Pacific naval aggressor team (PNAT) frequently surprises O-6 to O-10-level commanders, even with its adherence to a doctrinally correct enemy presentation. In other words, despite the fact that the actions of the red team are predictable with proper preparation, study, and planning, blue-force commanders are surprised often and forced off-tempo and off-plan. We have an obligation to ensure that this pattern is broken.

Think in Campaigns

An additional unique feature that differentiates fighting at the fleet level from command at the CSG/ESG level is the need to think in terms of campaigns. While we use the term “campaign” freely, arguably the U.S. Navy has not conducted a naval campaign since World War II. We think in terms of operations, current and future, but do not habitually consider the impact of current actions on future operations.

When we do contemplate campaigns, it tends to be as part of a joint planning process. Joint doctrine speaks of a campaign consisting of “related major operations aimed at achieving strategic and operational objectives.”4 As we engage this process, we tend to focus on a single overall campaign to achieve the stated strategic objective and forget the “operational” objectives that must drive concepts and plans at the fleet level. Thinking about a peer maritime adversary, we need to consider linking fleet operations in time, space, and purpose through multiple campaigns, each designed to achieve discrete operational objectives that enable maritime and joint operations. As part of this process, we must consider how to reconstitute Navy and Marine Corps forces following an operation, not only to replace combat losses, but to reorganize the forces and capabilities (think space, communications, cyberspace, sustainment, etc.) in preparation for the next major operation. As we contemplate naval campaigns that span multiple geographic theaters, it is clear these reconstitution operations are both unfamiliar and time-consuming.

Aside from the impact of sequential or parallel operations on combat forces, we often fail to appreciate the broad and usually unstated assumptions made by supporting joint commands and combat support agencies that impact our campaigns. Failure to do so results in plans that are fatally flawed not because the individual operations have something wrong, but because the aggregated requirements placed on combat support agencies and supporting joint commands are unexecutable—a fact often unnoticed by even those agencies and commanders. Worse, we assume that U.S. Navy elements are positioned to mobilize for campaign-level operations. There is no doubt that we will do so when called upon, but the aggregated requirements of a complex series of campaigns placed on the Naval Supply Systems Command, other Navy systems commands, and industry partners remains unknown, even though those limitations are knowable. Calling them out requires a commitment to test rigorously the system, as we at Pacific Fleet have with the Military Sealift Command.

This thought must happen at the fleet level to initiate a required conversation on what naval campaign planning is in the modern age. This only will happen if the fleet commander insists on a unity of effort and operational design.

Manipulate Time and Space (Tempo) 

Time and risk normally are inversely linked in combat operations. In our recent fights, our domination of the cognitive domain through superior intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) networks—with the resultant knowledge applied through robust and uncontested communications—have made it possible for U.S. forces to control timing and maintain politically acceptable risk levels. However, peer competition in the naval realm—the historically normal state of affairs—revolves around closely contested reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance operations. This limits the information available to a commander, who, at the same time, is confronted with imperfect and contested communications. Both factors eliminate the ability to manage time without impacting risk. The truism I have learned to apply is straightforward, but not simple: “Time is the commodity; risk is the currency.”

Risk buys time. Therefore, increasing tempo (reducing the time factor) generally increases risk. Inversely, when risk levels no longer are sustainable, tempo must be reduced. Increasing speed tends to be our intellectual default. While there are many situations where increasing speed is warranted, we often default to that answer without fully appreciating the associated risks and potential controls. I have concluded that time is the one factor that can be controlled if one is willing to assume the associated risk. Once that idea is accepted, all risk discussions must include a discussion about the associated impact on timing and tempo (and therefore impact on objective). This is the most important rheostat the operational level commander has for managing the relationship between tempo, protection, offense, and defense, and it only exists at the numbered fleet level and above.

Kill with Speed 

The ability to buy time by managing risk is critical to generating the necessary speed of action to force a rate of failure on the enemy that generates their capitulation. Students of the martial arts often practice techniques in a set pattern slowly and with exacting precision. Their goal is to make the movements second nature. Once these techniques are perfected they must be combined with speed in a fluid two-sided interaction. In a real fight, no one wins by defense, however perfect. They win by employing their techniques with speed.

Naval combat is similar. Much of the process of unit training certification consists of performing individual techniques, often in a set sequence and a reduced tempo. In a fight, these techniques need to be combined and executed with speed. As a fleet commander, I am as interested in kill rate as I am in kill ratio. Our warfighting culture focuses on kill ratio—the number of enemy losses we can inflict for every loss we take. There are clear reasons for this outlook. First, we often fight outnumbered, and we rely on a positive, even lopsided, exchange ratio to have a chance of success. Second, our record of success in combat in the past 40 years has given us the expectation that we can drive our losses to a minimum. This assumption is unrealistic against a peer adversary, but it persists nonetheless.

The reliance on high kill ratios causes us to prize the exquisite engagement, firing from a position of minimum uncertainty and maximum probability of success. The problem with this view is that in major naval combat, it is not possible to generate the number of exquisite engagements necessary to achieve victory. This reality is why, in the Pacific, we have focused on material solutions and tactics, techniques, and procedures that deliver a volume of fires into the maritime realm.

My question to my subordinate fleet and type commanders is not just what their forces can kill, but how fast? If a platform can kill one adversary per day, that fact combined with an assumption about friendly forces available yields an average survival time for each adversary unit. Anything that lengthens the average time adversary forces survive—even if the exchange ratio for the firing platforms is the same—increases losses to the U.S. side. For example, if our fighters take two days to destroy a two-plane unit of adversary strike aircraft instead of one, the overall exchange ratio (fighters vs. strike aircraft) is unchanged. The adversary strike aircraft, however, have twice the time to deliver ordnance against friendly forces in the area. Total friendly losses increase. Conversely, anything that speeds our completion of successful engagements almost always drives down our overall losses. That is why the Pacific Fleet has put an emphasis on drills that force units not simply to engage, but to engage rapidly one target after another, exercising the entire kill chain to include the critical ISR fight.

Strive for Mission Command

We speak glibly about mission command. Our core doctrinal publications assert that mission command is the default style of operations within the U.S. Navy.5 Most serving officers with more than a year of fleet experience will understand that it is not. Our command system has become tightly coupled, and as it has, it has lost the resilience that should characterize naval forces.6 This is one reason for that: In my experience, operational commanders, when under stress, revert to the comfort zone of their tactical roots.

A fleet commander first must recognize the wisdom and necessity of mission command, then develop the discipline and fortitude to follow through. Outside my office there is a painting of Admiral Chester Nimitz working at his desk. It is rich with detail, but I focus on the high-frequency (HF) radio over his left shoulder. We often recall that Nimitz sent Rear Admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank Jack Fletcher into battle at Midway, charging them to take “calculated risk” to gain advantage over the numerous imperial Japanese forces. What we often forget is that Nimitz listened to the fight unfold from his headquarters. At moments, it seemed to be going badly. Nonetheless, he never transmitted on that HF radio to the engaged commanders—a level of trust and discipline to which every commander should aspire.

Just as critical is the discipline involved in creating an environment where subordinate levels of the chain of command understand the commander’s intent. All commanders, but especially fleet commanders, owe subordinates an explanation of what they are doing and why. Command must be inclusive, not exclusive, in its application. Explanation is not a challenge to the chain of command, but a reinforcement of it—a means to ensure it can continue even when links in the chain are broken and commanders are out of contact with subordinates and seniors.

Fleet commanders need to express their thinking in a detailed, thoughtful manner. They have a duty and obligation to explain themselves. Shortly after taking command, I published four lengthy “personal for” messages that outlined my style of command and philosophy on three critical warfighting areas. At the midway point, we released our “Operational Design for Maritime Supremacy.” The Operational Design built on the CNO’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” outlining our approach at the fleet level. Most recently, we published the “Pacific Fleet Fighting Instructions.” Taken together, these documents offer a detailed overview of the challenges we face in the Pacific and the warfighting approach that animates all the actions of the fleet. Operational commanders must think. Part of that is that they must also write.

These documents are outside the lifelines of Navy doctrine—the hierarchy of tactical memos, operational taskings, and naval warfare publications that are supposed to govern our actions. Working a parallel series of documents was a considered decision. The reality is that, given the time required to create official Navy-wide instructions and publications, they always will lag our needs that are driven by the speed at which potential adversaries are maturing their military capabilities. In many cases, the torturous coordination chain each memo and publication must go through yields a document that reflects the lowest point of common agreement, not one that expresses the fleet’s most dynamic thinking. The intellectual and doctrinal improvement of our adversaries demands us to move faster.

Fight the Fleet

A fleet is the Navy’s essential fighting element, our central contribution to the joint fight and to the nation’s defense. Forming a fleet into a coherent fighting organization brings an inherently integrated multi-domain warfighting structure. The natural synergies enjoyed by the surface, subsurface, and air domains are obvious and speak to our current day-to-day warfighting organization. Deliberate inclusion of the organic Fleet Marine Force and Naval Expeditionary Combat Command expeditionary capabilities enhance the fleet organization into one that can fight a highly mobile, maneuver-focused naval campaign sustained in austere locations over time.

As we contemplate peer-level maritime adversaries, we need to recall the Navy’s foundational strength and resiliency. In response, we have focused the Pacific Fleet into full-spectrum and multi-domain numbered fleets within theater-level warfighting organizations capable of overmatching any adversary. Careful focus at the operational level of war is necessary to craft and wield this force.

In 2015, when I took command of the Pacific Fleet, I took it as my charge to ensure the guidance and way ahead was clear and articulated.

If you are a Pacific Fleet sailor, your charge is to train to and critique that guidance as if you will be called upon to execute it tomorrow.

1. Command and Control for Joint Maritime Operations, Joint Publication 3-32, 7 August 2013, IV-1.

2. Milan Vego, “On Naval Warfare,” Tidskrift i Sjöväsendet, Issue 1, 2010, 89.

3. Patrick Beesley, Very Special Admiral: The Life of Admiral J. H. Godfrey, CB (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980), 126–31.

4. Joint Operations, Joint Publication 3-0, 17 January 2017, V-5.

5. Naval Doctrine Publication 1, Naval Warfare, March 2010, 36.

6. Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies , updated edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Admiral Swift is the 35th Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. His headquarters is in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This is the third article he has written for Proceedings this year. “ Master the Art of Command and Control ” appeared in the February issue, and “ Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities ” appeared in the March issue.




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