In this era of great power competition, the surface warfare community is facing some pretty wicked challenges. Gone are the days when the U.S. Navy sailed whenever and wherever it pleased. Antiship cruise missiles traveling three times faster than sound, “carrier killer” ballistic missiles with ranges of 1,000-plus miles, ultraquiet submarines, and swarming missile boats are but a few of the rising threats on the high seas.
The surface warfare community has come a considerable way in improving warfighter proficiency. It has set up a new career path for young officers to specialize in tactics, revamped the Surface Warfare Officers School curriculum to add hours to warfighting scenarios, and, most significant, stood up a “Top Gun” for surface warfare dedicated to learning, developing, and teaching advanced tactics. But this is only half of the equation.
We are missing the enemy.
What the great Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke said more than 200 years ago still holds true today: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” To maintain the competitive edge and better hone fighting skills, the surface warfare community should consider creating a group of professional enemies much like aviation’s aggressor squadrons.
Aviation aggressor squadrons study enemy tactics and doctrine. They serve as an opposing force to U.S. aviation units and fly “enemy” aircraft replete with matching paint schemes. Unlike fleet squadrons that have to learn and maintain multiple skill sets—carrier deck landings, close air support, air-to-ground attack—aggressor squadrons focus solely on fighting in the sky. As noted on the blog The Aviation Geek Club, these pilots become “Shaolin monk[s] of aerial hand-to-hand combat.”
Aggressors are professionals who have a lot of continuity in their tradecraft, often completing multiple tours in the same squadron. They are graduates of Top Gun and also must undergo a rigorous qualification process to be called a “bandit”—a term for the enemy. Their “bad guy” credentialing takes at least a year to complete, and once done, bandits are as close to the real enemy as you can get.
Why Doesn’t Surface Warfare Do this?
First, the surface warfare community really hasn’t had a competent naval challenger since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. So why worry?
Second, real “enemies” are expensive. It costs a lot of money to get ships under way, and the Department of Defense has been operating under fiscally restrictive continuing resolutions for 14 of the past 18 years. The Navy can run a half-dozen simulations for a fraction of the cost and time it would take to get a single ship out to sea.
Third, there just aren’t extra warships lying around to play the bad guys. The lack of surface combatants has been a widely debated issue for decades. Today, the U.S. Navy is still more than 60 ships short of the required 355.
Fourth, there hasn’t been a significant U.S. naval battle since World War II. Unlike the aviation community, which lost thousands of aircraft and several hundred pilots to enemy action in the Vietnam War, surface warfare hasn’t felt the same pressure of lost ships and sailors.
So Why Now?
Put simply, China and Russia. The U.S. surface navy has ceded much of its competitive advantage to these two countries. “China’s navy is getting bigger and better and doing it at a speed unmatched by any nation around the globe,” reported CNN’s Brad Lendon. And the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, Admiral James Foggo, repeatedly has stated his concerns regarding a more forceful, capable, and confident Russian fleet.
To address the cost and ship shortage issues, the littoral combat ships (LCSs) may be a good solution. The first four of the class look to fall into an “experimental” designation, potentially creating an “extra” category outside the normal fleet deployment cycle. In addition, LCSs are designed to be reconfigurable, which creates an opportunity to adapt them to resemble the “enemy.” Their small crew size and high level of automation also reduce operating costs.
As for the lack of pressure, there seems to be plenty coming not only from China and Russia, but also from traditional maritime antagonists such as Iran and North Korea. Let’s not wait for a major naval defeat to galvanize action for surface warfare aggressor squadrons.