A fleet is more than a collection of ships, and a campaign is more than a single event. With the reemergence of great power competition, naval forces must clearly articulate what naval campaigning means today. How we develop, sequence, execute, and sustain naval operations over time will determine our ability to control the seas or deny their use to our enemies, to project power, and to secure the sea lines of communication in times of crisis.
Naval campaign planning must include not only the Navy’s warfare communities, but also the Marine Corps’. Nearly two years ago, my predecessor, former Commandant General Robert Neller, drew applause at the 2019 Naval Institute/AFCEA WEST Conference when he said, “We’re going to have to fight to get to the fight,” and, “I think we’re going to need more submarines” in a fight against a peer adversary. While those were bold statements from a Marine general, I am ready to take that line of thinking even further. The undersea fight will be so critical in the High North and in the western Pacific that the Marine Corps must be part of it.
Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) offers an opportunity to focus each service’s current and evolving organizations and capabilities on an area in which losing our national advantage could have existential consequences.
EABs AND ASW
U.S. ASW capabilities in the air, on the surface, and under the sea rely on a brittle layer of logistical support. As Chinese and Russian undersea warfare capabilities continue to improve, logistics and other supporting operations for U.S. ASW forces will grow in importance. Integrating cross-domain ASW operations into the Marine Corps’ expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) concept could enable the joint force to sustain or widen its advantage in ASW. Conducted across the spectrum of conflict, theater-level ASW is a campaign of sustained actions over time for undersea advantage. By offering forward logistics and support, as well as sensor and strike capabilities, Marine expeditionary advanced bases (EABs) could make a significant contribution to undersea warfare campaigns, including holding Chinese and Russian submarines at risk.
During the Cold War, and starting in the early 1980s, Marines played a key role in the Maritime Strategy to take the fight to the periphery of the Soviet Union in the High North of Norway. Their role was to gain and maintain air control over key maritime terrain. Marine expeditionary equipment could expand the number of usable airfields in the region, and Marine command and control could facilitate linking air, ground, and sea operations.1 After the Cold War ended, and particularly after 11 September 2001, we shifted our focus away from the High North and toward the Middle East and South Asia. However, recent reductions in land operations in the Central Command area of responsibility, and the Marine Corps’ renewed focus on naval expeditionary operations, have created opportunities to reevaluate our role in the High North of Europe, as well as in the western Pacific.
Much of our effort in the High North in the past several years has involved relearning effective expeditionary operations in the unique conditions of the region. Trident Juncture 2018—the largest NATO exercise in the North Atlantic since the end of the Cold War—retaught lessons about operating in Arctic conditions. Marine Corps’ operations in Norway are part of the joint force and NATO contact layer in day-to-day strategic competition with Russia, and not simply a remnant of legacy Cold War contingency requirements. It may be in the contact layer—and in the transition to blunt layer activities—that the Marine Corps can have its greatest effect.
Parallel to our efforts, Navy ASW operators have been making significant contributions to the contact layer every day. Just as the Cactus Air Force at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal was an extension of the fleet in the Solomon Islands during World War II, Marine EABs could enable a fleet commander’s ASW efforts. With the requisite investments, EABs in Norway could extend ASW coverage into the North, Norwegian, and Barents seas. They could operate unmanned air vehicles equipped with ASW sensors and sonobuoys and deploy and operate passive and active acoustic arrays in adjacent littoral waters. In the event of hostilities, when cued by these organic sensors or other joint ISR capabilities, EABs could harass and potentially neutralize Russian submarines with ground-launched ASW missiles or light torpedoes from Marine aircraft. From operating areas in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland, EABs could support an ASW fence across the Greenland–Iceland–United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, bottling Russian submarines in the Norwegian Sea and keeping them out of the North Atlantic.
The same concept could be applied to the First Island Chain in the western Pacific. Without being limited to the Philippines and Japan, EABs could create opportunities from multiple locations beyond the South and East China Seas. Close, confined seas may offer more opportunities for Marine EABs to sense and strike Chinese ships and submarines, while supporting fleet and joint ASW efforts.
The Navy’s submarine force—which attacked primarily Japanese merchant ships during World War II—recast itself as an antisubmarine force during the Cold War in response to the Soviet Union’s impressive submarine force. Now, nearly three decades after the Cold War ended, the Russian submarine force is reemerging as a highly capable force, closing the technology gap with the United States. In 2016, then–Vice Admiral James G. Foggo, Commander Sixth Fleet, described the ongoing undersea competition in this way:
It is now clear that a fourth battle [of the Atlantic] is not looming, but is being waged now, across and underneath the oceans and seas that border Europe. This is not a kinetic fight. It is a struggle between Russian forces that probe for weakness, and U.S. and NATO ASW forces that protect and deter. Just like in the Cold War, the stakes are high.2
Antisubmarine warfare is not just submarine versus submarine—it is a fleetwide effort. The role of maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft (MPRA), including those of our allies and partners, has increased. Because of the vast sea space that must be covered, MPRA help focus submarine assets and other ASW forces. Increasing tensions could negatively affect their operations or even bring them to a standstill. Consider a situation in the Arctic along the Russian periphery similar to the events in eastern Ukraine in July 2014. Instead of a Malaysia Airlines commercial flight, a Russian air-defense missile shoots down a P-8A Poseidon.
Europe is a continental theater that often has led planners to ignore the maritime component of European operations. Obstacles to continental or maritime operations can come from the land and sea. The Russian submarine force includes ballistic-missile submarines, whose nuclear-armed missiles present an existential threat to the United States, our allies, and partners, and highly capable multipurpose submarines that can launch Kalibr SS-N-27 antiship and SS-N-30A land-attack cruise missiles. Russian land-based threats to the fleet have evolved as well. Strike aircraft and missiles can threaten the nodes required to support the fleet: shore-based logistics bases and MPRA airfields.
ESCALATION CONTROL ALONG THE CONFLICT CONTINUUM
When U.S. military leaders think about operations in the High North, we often focus on the most violent portion of the conflict spectrum and have difficulty discussing the transition between competition and conflict. Said another way, our naval operating concepts do not always account for the nuances between weapons tight and weapons free. As a result, we discuss the first actions in the transition from competition to conflict as moving straight into Russian bastions and eliminating all threats. Without much concern for horizontal or vertical escalation, we tend to ignore the gray zone where the Russians have succeeded. We also ignore the command-and-control paradigm favored by leaders at the highest levels of the Department of Defense, who will manage operations in a highly centralized manner (to reduce the risks of escalation) and be loath to release control until events force their hand.
More likely than not, the transition from competition to armed conflict could be ambiguous. In recent discussions with the Commander, Naval Forces Europe and Sixth Fleet, my staff and I realized that many in the Navy envision a more nuanced approach that coincides with the way many of us are thinking. Keeping events below the threshold of conflict, at least in the eyes of the American public, may limit options available to U.S. political and military leaders. This does not mean events short of conflict will not be violent, vicious, and bloody; it means our opponent will look for opportunities to inflict losses that the United States may be unable or unwilling to respond to in an environment of rising tensions.
With little self-protection, MPRA could be disrupted with significant effect to naval operations in the High North. Disrupting the supply system that sustains P-8s, or threatening them in the air, could be accomplished below the threshold required for a U.S. reaction. A disruption of ASW operations could lead to the free movement of Russian submarines into the Atlantic, causing the Navy to expend significant efforts to reacquire them at the expense of other operations. This is why the GIUK gap is so critical to the Navy. Considering the ASW challenges beyond the gap, Russian submarines could be highly disruptive to sea-based movements from the United States to Europe and hold U.S. homeland targets at risk.
With this in mind, fleet commanders could neutralize potential threats to MPRA specifically—and ASW in general—by establishing EABs in areas that contribute to sustained ASW operations over time. Each fleet can articulate the key maritime terrain necessary to support its operations. In the High North, both Norway and Iceland are key. In the contact layer, a tailored Marine EAB could support existing airfields or offer the capability to create new sites. Support could range from airfield services to aircraft maintenance and sustainment support. Some may question the need for this option, because they think the Navy can support MPRA operations without assistance. However, a detailed look at the movement of maintenance parts (as well as other mission-critical items, such as sonobuoys) reveals a fragile system. It may take just a little pressure to disrupt this logistics enterprise. Tailored Marine support, aligned with updated prepositioned stores in Norway, could help maintain this vital support.
If tensions rose from contact layer to blunt layer, an EAB could transition to kinetic activity. While logistical concerns remain with the addition of airfield repair, operational concerns will move to the forefront. The fleet would be taxed to conduct air- and sea-control activities across the High North, because at present, much of that effort must focus on fleet defense.
In support of ASW, an EAB could provide air defense and combat air patrol to support P-8s. Considering the ranges involved and the time required to move naval platforms into position from the Atlantic or Mediterranean, a forward postured EAB could support sustained ASW operations until the arrival of the fleet. In addition, EAB command-and-control nodes across the High North could facilitate greater integration with the joint force air component commander’s (JFACC’s) assets and operations, including long-range strike and defensive counter air assets. With its own long-range strike capabilities, an EAB could hold Russian forces at risk that threaten ASW and future fleet operations. Not limited to land-based operations, EAB antiship missiles could keep Russian sea-based power projection forces at bay. Marine information warfare assets also could support the theater ASW effort and the broader naval campaign. Many capabilities planned for the Marine littoral regiments in the Pacific could be applied to the European theater.
China is today’s pacing threat, but the Navy must be prepared to support operations against both China and Russia. Russia’s submarine force is still superior in quality to China’s and much closer geographically to ours. While submarines offer a penetrating capability in a conflict with China, their ASW role in the Pacific will differ from the day-to-day struggle in the High North and the Atlantic. If we are to be a “single naval expeditionary force capable of deterring malign behavior and, when necessary, fighting inside our adversary’s weapons-engagement zone to facilitate sea denial in support of fleet operations and joint force horizontal escalation,”3 then we must be prepared to support fleet operations wherever they may occur. The differing capabilities of Russia and China, as well as the significant disparities in geography, will call for differing approaches by fleet commanders. EABs could support commerce destruction in a conflict in the Pacific.4 Just as the role of the submarine morphed during World War II from supporting fleet operations against the Imperial Japanese Navy to choking off Japanese supply lines through a sustained campaign against merchant shipping, EABs could be tailored to support the needs of any maritime campaign.
DETERRENCE EVERY DAY
During the Cold War, deterrence was not a theoretical activity, but a mission executed every day. Before designing something new, we should review the significant work on great power competition accomplished in the 1970s and 1980s, much of which was codified in the Navy’s 1986 Maritime Strategy. As we move into the future, the Marine Corps must support fleet operations in the contact layer, and set conditions to ensure a position of advantage if events transition to blunt layer operations. Nowhere will that competition be fiercer than in the undersea domain.
Instead of relying on lessons from the past two decades of operations in the Central Command AOR, we should return to some of the assumptions of the Cold War and move forward from there. We must consider how our Cold War approach to the Soviet Navy could inform our near-term efforts against the Russian Navy and longer-term efforts against the Chinese. The Chinese are watching every aspect of the competition in Europe and learning from it. To paraphrase Cold War Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Watkins, we must counter the strategy of our adversaries and deny them the luxury of fighting the type of war they choose.5 As it has demonstrated repeatedly, the Chinese Navy will get better every day. That said, its increasing capability will invariably create new locations for competition beyond the South and East China Seas, including areas such as the Arctic. Supporting MPRA may be the tip of the iceberg, so we should buttress Second Fleet and Sixth Fleet ASW efforts to compete in the High North today and participate in the Navy’s broader efforts to create a campaign for undersea dominance against a more capable Chinese Navy of tomorrow.
1. John T. Hanley, Jr., “Creating the 1980s Maritime Strategy and Implications for Today,” Naval War College Review, (Spring 2014), 8–9 AB.
2. VADM James G. Foggo, USN, and Alarik Fritz, “The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 2016, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2016/june/fourth-battle-atlantic.
3. Gen David Berger, USMC, Force Design 2030, (Headquarters USMC, Washington, DC: 2020).
4. Dustin League and Dan Justice, “Sink ‘em All: Envisioning Marine Corps Maritime Interdiction”, Center for International Maritime Security, 8 June 2020. http://cimsec.org/sink-em-all-envisioning-marine-corps-maritime-interdiction/44130.
5. ADM James D. Watkins, USN, The Maritime Strategy, supplement to U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1986, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1986/january-supplement/maritime-strategy-0.