When the ships and sailors of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) Eight departed Norfolk, Virginia, in April 2018, the crews anticipated a conventional seven-month deployment with Fifth and Sixth Fleets. Less than one month later, the strike group found itself testing then–Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s promise that the armed forces would become “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable” through dynamic force employment.
As a result, CSG-8’s schedule changed radically, even as the group significantly limited release of information about intended movements to maintain operational security. After three months, most of the CSG returned to homeport for a five-week “working port visit,” then redeployed to the North Atlantic, joined Exercise Trident Juncture, and conducted the Navy’s first sustained CSG operations north of the Arctic Circle since 1991.
This unique deployment tested not only dynamic force employment, but also the operational capabilities and limitations of a modern CSG in the High North, the challenges of partnering across a region, and the inclusion of a “cooperative deployer” (a foreign ship attached to the strike group). The strike group demonstrated a high degree of flexibility and agility in planning and operational risk assessment in the face of rapidly changing missions and weather. Shore support struggled to keep pace with rapidly changing plans, however. Logistics support was austere, cumbersome, and not well suited for the prevailing weather conditions. Administrative processes were too rigid, with a bias toward the status quo and accustomed to supporting independent deploying destroyers, nothing like the scale a CSG requires.
As the Navy refocuses on great power competition, future success will require studying CSG-8’s deployment to discern best practices and identify (and remove) the obstacles that arose—before some other strike group is tested in combat. Policies, technologies, ship designs, and tactics, techniques, and procedures all must be examined and updated to ensure the next CSG is ready to fight.
In July, Sixth Fleet ordered the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), Normandy (CG-60), Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), and Forrest Sherman (DDG-98), to return to Norfolk. The ships needed to prepare for extended, high-end operations in the challenging operating environment of the North Atlantic, in particular during NATO Exercise Trident Juncture, a multilateral amphibious exercise held above the Arctic Circle.
This unusual return provided an excellent opportunity to conduct a month-long, mid-deployment repair-and-training period with the full support of the best infrastructure. Some aspects were very successful, such as the extra maintenance and repair work for the Normandy, Arleigh Burke, and Forrest Sherman. Carrier Air Wing (CVW) One developed a tailored training plan focused on air-to-surface missions that might arise in Sixth Fleet, and four F/A-18E/F Super Hornet squadrons upgraded aircraft combat systems software ahead of schedule. However, the unusual requirement to surge resources and shift priorities on short notice exposed some shortcomings in the capacity and flexibility of the shore infrastructure, and burdensome administrative processes required focused and direct leadership to overcome. In other words, some systems were not adapting to the more warlike footing demanded by dynamic force employment.
Beyond training and maintenance, the mid-deployment reset provided an opportunity to refocus operational planning efforts, but without the usual predeployment staff lead up. To learn about the challenges of operating in the Norwegian Sea, CSG-8 sought historical guidance from Navy Warfare Development Command, Naval History and Heritage Command, the Information Warfare Community, and embedded representatives from the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). The team reviewed relevant CNA studies from the 1980s about operations in Norway’s Vestfjord, former Navy Secretary John Lehman’s Oceans Ventured (W. W. Norton, 2018), and Vice Admiral Henry “Hank” Mustin’s 1986 Second Fleet Fighting Instructions. Captain Nicholas Dienna, the Harry S. Truman’s commanding officer, reached out to some naval aviation graybeards as well. From the lessons of the past, the group built a plan for the second part of deployed operations.
The 2018 deployment marked the return to a strategic focus toward traditional sea-control missions—power projection, forward presence, and protection of sea lines of communication and commerce. CSG-8’s sailors, experienced in maritime operations in the Arabian Gulf and in the skies over Afghanistan, adapted to the challenges of extreme weather conditions, tenuous logistic support, and dynamic maneuver. The existing body of after-action and lessons-learned reports from the Cold War helped, but the composition, technology, and requirements of today’s strike group brought new trials.
Strike groups can expect to operate with increasing frequency in contested maritime areas. The lessons of the past offer an important starting point, but today’s ships and sailors must be supported by high-velocity institutional learning and the application of new lessons to fight and win at sea, starting with those identified by the Truman Strike Group.
Weather dominated strike group planning cycles. Hurricanes, heavy seas, and high winds challenged execution and drove a very tight cycle—typically 72 hours or less. No amount of planning and advance study can make up for the fact that, across more than 500,000 square miles, historical averages mask extremes: Seas could be calm one day and 20 feet the next; a 10-foot average does not tell the story. Predictions beyond three days were unhelpful. Dynamic weather—sea state, longer swell periods, and high winds especially—required a compressed decision timeline and adversely affected risk assessment, especially the effects on operations, injury to people, and damage to ships and aircraft. Operational commanders need meteorological experts who deeply understand weather and can provide quality data analysis with appropriate local and regional knowledge.
At the same time, operational thresholds also must be dynamic, and commanders should use them as guidelines to allow crews to adapt as they gain proficiency. For example, optimum track ship routing (OTSR) recommendations, first published in 1995 and updated in 2009 for destroyers, are risk averse by design. Their purpose is to prevent damage to ships, equipment, and personnel. Commanding officers tend to perceive the guidance as red lines not to be crossed, but they are outdated, do not support operational requirements in the High North, and should be reviewed and updated.
Guidance for helicopter operations must be robust and clear, and it should articulate the risks and benefits of exceeding limitations so commanders can make well-informed decisions. Pitch, roll, and wind limits should be reviewed and updated. The Navy should seek improved mechanical designs and systems, such as systems similar to Recovery Assist, Secure, and Traverse (RAST), to support safer shipborne helicopter operations in more challenging environments. More testing is required to identify potential changes to fixed-wing and carrier flight-deck limitations. Commanders must understand how to weigh the risks of launching aircraft in extreme weather against opportunities to destroy high-value targets in wartime. They also must be ready to convene war councils regularly to assess plans against current conditions and innovatively solve problems for which there is no playbook.
Even when the Arctic weather is suitable to operate, it is unlikely to be good. Aviators, ship drivers, and deck crews topside are operating at their personal limits. Commanders must remain vigilant, take this environment very seriously, and trust their ship captains and aircraft commanders to call off operations if weather conditions pass those limits.
Mission command is imperative when surface escorts are distributed over a large geographic area with extended lines of communication and rapidly changing plans due to weather. From the flag bridge of the aircraft carrier, it is impossible to fully appreciate the conditions on a destroyer 40 miles away in a hurricane or an Arctic storm.
Operating a combat force that can fight through severe weather conditions requires greater risk tolerance than peacetime training. Peacetime ship, aircraft, and personnel operational limits assume forces will cease operations in severe weather. But combat may dictate otherwise, and commanders need to think through the implications of pushing forces past existing guidelines. To safely continue operations in increasingly austere conditions in the High North, CSG-8 continually assessed the effect of high winds and seas on surface ship operations and made risk decisions with careful mitigation plans. As crews became more proficient and experienced in the environment, operational thresholds gradually increased, in some cases in excess of previously published guidelines.
There and Back Again . . .
Following a rigorous workup of integrated and advanced tactical predeployment training, the Harry S. Truman Strike Group (CSG-8) deployed in April 2018 with Carrier Air Wing 1, the USS Normandy (CG-60), German frigate Hessen (F 221), and guided-missile destroyers from Destroyer Squadron 28.
Phase one supported U.S. operations in Syria, integrated the “cooperative deployer” Hessen, and engaged partners through training, exercises, and hosting distinguished visitors. CSG-8 conducted integrated surface ship and strike exercises with Morocco, trained with the Italian Air Force in the Adriatic, and flew in support of Exercise BaltOps in the Baltic Sea from the Adriatic. The USS Forrest Sherman (DDG-98) operated with partners in the Adriatic and Ionian seas for a training event, while other ships and aircraft took part in French air-defense exercises, antisubmarine warfare training, and France’s Air Defense Week.
Following the mid-deployment refit at Norfolk, phase two stretched the reach of the carrier strike group across a broad range of geography, operations, and partnerships—not to mention the fall and winter weather in the High North. Deployment began with flight operations off Atlantic City and a seaport-defense exercise with the Royal Canadian Navy ship HMCS Halifax, with the CSG under operational control of Northern Command. On return to European Command, the CSG operated with the U.K. in the North Sea before transiting to the Norwegian Sea, north of the Arctic Circle.
Participation in Exercise Trident Juncture primarily consisted of providing air support to the expeditionary strike group and practicing cooperation with Norwegian forces. The air wing temporarily operated two MH-60S helicopters from Andenes, Norway, to minimize response time for over-the-horizon search and rescue. The Norwegian frigate Thor Heyerdahl and corvettes Storm and Skudd joined the strike group for training and operations, and assisted with transition operations to the Vestfjord, a 96-mile-long inland sea in northwest Norway, to shelter from strong winds and heavy seas common in winter in this area. And, with part of the strike group operating simultaneously in the Eastern Mediterranean, the CSG gained firsthand experience of truly distributed maritime operations.
Dynamic force employment and rapidly changing environments have outsized effects on logistics. When orders change without months of advance planning, sustainment at sea becomes more challenging, and strong relationships with allies and partners become more important.
The Navy must improve its logistics agility, flexibility, and speed in non-U.S. ports. (See “Dynamic Maneuver Requires Agile Logistics,” January 2020, pp. 32–35.) The Navy can move repair parts, food, and supplies quickly and efficiently from Norfolk to the Arabian Gulf after 30 years of practice. This is not the case when flowing supplies to the Arctic, even though partners are eager to assist. Repair parts destined for destroyers in the Norwegian Sea cannot travel first to hubs in the Mediterranean before being redirected to Norway or the United Kingdom. Supply ships must be able to replenish in ports near the scene of action, not thousands of miles away, running a gantlet of enemy action and weather.
Seaports and airfields must shorten lines to the operating areas and be equipped with infrastructure to support the volume of materials needed to answer a carrier strike group’s demands. Ships need agile voyage repair-funding processes and facilities that allow quick and effective corrective maintenance in non-U.S. ports. Consequently, legal authorities must be established in advance that facilitate rapid customs clearance, especially for repair parts, and must be flexible enough to support operations that shift on the fly.
Combat Logistics Force (CLF) shipping is critical to sustaining operations at sea, especially in harsh environments. Revised OTSR guidelines must include CLF shipping. Future shipbuilding acquisition programs must consider combat logistics’ critical role supporting strike group operations and build CLF ships able to operate in the same conditions as combatants, which they do not today. CLF ships also should have their own embarked vertical replenishment assets; they should not need the strike group to provide them. These ships must be able to refuel and replenish the CSG with minimal degradation or distraction from operations. When combatants come off station to resupply, the Navy loses sea control.
Bluewater Certification Is Not Combat Readiness
Carrier strike groups must return from deployment as ready for high-end combat operations as when they departed. Knowledge, expert skill, and complex coordination relationships require persistent use to build muscle memory. The proficiency and tactical edge of a force can degrade over the course of deployment without training opportunities, range facilities, and partners who also possess high-end capabilities. Training and preparation for combat at the high end of intensity and technology must be not only rigorous and challenging but also sustained.
Future deployed strike groups must continue to train with increasing complexity and sophisticated tactics, and against adversary challenges to the Navy’s most technologically advanced communication and weapon systems. CSG-8 embraced this need with surface warfare exercises, training, and maritime security operations. CVW-1 established training detachments ashore during port visits to Portugal and the United Kingdom to continue training with partners. When time constraints precluded multinational exercises or range use, warfare commanders established a battle rhythm of partial task training. The Sixth Fleet commander gave CSG-8 the time, initiative, and partner engagement opportunities to prioritize training. Good relationships with allies and partners will create future such opportunities on short notice. But future dynamic employments also will require strategic leadership in developing the CSG’s schedule at the combatant and fleet commander levels—and administrative infrastructure flexible enough to absorb rapid changes to the operational and support schedules.
This type of deployment—with long lines of operation, communication, and sustainment—can be more successful in the future if the Navy acts on these lessons and experiences to improve and innovate. The Navy must operate routinely in the Arctic (and anyplace else that has not been attended to since the Cold War) so commanders can earn experience and expertise. CSG-8’s dynamic employment should be considered only the start of experimentation. If future deployments do not build on this knowledge, the Navy may find itself experimenting in combat.