The Navy is awakening to a profound vulnerability in its ability to wage warfare: It increasingly is understood that the electromagnetic spectrum (ES) has become a shaky foundation upon which the entire edifice of the Navy’s warfighting capability stands.
Curiously, this vulnerability is a result of the Navy’s explosive growth in command, control, communications, computers, combat systems, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C5ISR) capabilities and capacity. Over time, a remarkable and unique ability to blend all elements of a widely dispersed force of weapons, sensors, and information into a single, integrated, global combat management system (CMS) has been developed for and by the U.S. Navy. This CMS enables distributed maritime operations through which a maritime operations center (MOC), supporting a joint task force, will design and implement operational level “effects” across both time and space. Ultimately, this CMS underwrites an ability to put exactly the right assets at the right place at the right time, maximizing effect and minimizing inefficiency in combat and contingency operations.
Unfortunately, today’s peer and near-peer competitors recognize the advantage conferred on the U.S. Navy through unfettered access to the ES. In a post-Arabian-Gulf era of Navy operations, the flow of information will be a primary point of attack by any enemy possessing the means to do so. So, while it may be desirable to plan for awesome C5ISR capabilities, in any real fight, full employment of those capabilities will be problematic.
As was suggested in then-Lieutenant (j.g.) Daniel Stefanus’s 2017 prize-winning essay, “Embracing the Dark Battle,” the Navy must develop the tactical approaches necessary to win in an ES-denied environment—an environment in which connections to and from higher authorities and across the force likely will be interrupted or severed. A unit cut off from higher headquarters and external support for warfighting systems will need to know what to do. Seek and destroy? Wait for guidance? Go to port? What about fuel?
Former Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift grasped the conflict between a maturing, global CMS and the possible loss of spectrum with the 2017 publication of his “Fighting Instructions.” While the content of these fighting instructions is classified, the shape of them can be guessed at, and perhaps they offer answers to some of the questions that arise in a “dark battle” scenario. Nevertheless, it is essential that intense, critical thought be given to these issues, and the tactics necessary for fighting in the dark should be developed and practiced.
In the long run, satisfying answers may lie in artificial intelligence—what former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work called “The Third Offset.” In the midterm, in addition to thinking through tactical and operational approaches, strong technological action is demanded. Today, most military satellite communications are carried on commercial channels. Few of those channels are secure from intercept or jamming. Hardening satellite communications as well as backstopping the satellite grid with long-duration drones—across the entire battlespace—is essential.
In exercises and war games, the Navy must plan for and practice operating in an ES-denied environment. Mission command must be stressed, and unit commanding officers must understand commander’s intent to ensure action against the enemy does not come to a halt when C5ISR is denied.
In distributed maritime operations against a peer-level adversary, the Navy cannot count on clear, uninterrupted, omniscient C5ISR across the battlespace; it must consider, plan for, and train to the likely state of warfare on day one of a fight, which is likely to be dark.
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).