The Navy’s method of conducting, evaluating, and determining the efficacy of fleet readiness exercises is insufficient. The current model does not efficiently and effectively prepare the fleet to develop high-end warfighting skills and fails to prepare warfighters to fight as a combined force against a peer adversary in a contested environment. This shortfall is hampering the Navy’s ability to make best use of value-added capabilities and network-centric concepts that could ensure victory in a future naval conflict.
If the Navy is unable to fight and win in such circumstances, it cannot credibly deter conflict and fulfill its responsibilities under the National Defense Strategy. Furthermore, should war come, lack of sufficient preparation today will result in an excessive loss of life, damage to assets, and embarrassment to a nation that prides itself on maintaining freedom and security on the high seas.
Too Many Scripted Exercises
For soon-to-deploy strike groups, the Navy holds a tactical-level exercise known as Composite Training Unit Exercise (C2X), where leaders can evaluate forces at a small scale and provide geographic combatant commanders with the results of the exercise. During C2X events (an event is a discrete evolution within the larger exercise), the Navy needs to test its ability to operate in a contested environment and measure force integration. Likewise, C2X coordinators should focus more on opportunities that recognize new problems while simultaneously accomplishing initiatives that lead to more effective on-station tactics. If this occurs, operational readiness can be achieved—ensuring the units can do the basics and work as a group—while minimizing the use of scripted scenarios and excessive control-group (white-cell) intervention.1
The current C2X construct revolves around synthetic geography, in which participants are given the characteristics of fictional coastal countries and the nature of the conflict between them. The C2X events include organic carrier forces matched with nonorganic assets. In the event a nonorganic platform (such as a contracted adversary aircraft) cancels because of weather or an equipment problem, the exercise white cell can intervene and provide information to allow the event to continue and adjust to prevent deviation from the script. The white cell, otherwise known as “control,” holds the power to provide bits of information to participants and reallocate or revive assets to continue with the scenario and guide players to a desired state. However, the increased intervention of white-cell information, called “white carding,” hinders strike groups’ ability to practice nontraditional and innovative means to work through, or around, new problems.
Scripted Warfare Hurts Warfighters
When writing on the means of war, Carl von Clausewitz references only one: Combat. Clausewitz asserts that combat in war “is not a contest between individuals, [but] a whole made up of many parts.”2 During Navy exercises, the service should practice functioning as a fortified unit under the umbrella of hardened mission command rather than as individual assets achieving singular readiness milestones. When exercise planners script the same geography, under the same scenario timelines, and inject artificial assumptions into the scenario, Navy exercise participants deviate from realistic facets and work toward a contrived outcome.
One of the items Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Michael M. Gilday outlined in his 01/2019 Fragmentary Order is the integration of decision science into leadership development. The CNO writes that “[improved] decision-making [is] a decisive advantage in stressful conditions, particularly during combat” that can enable successful mission execution.3 The Navy cannot accurately judge warfighter or systems capabilities with the current C2X construct. It must allow significant amounts of free play, remove artificial assumptions, and limit “fair play” white-cell injections. Navy leaders should instead look to encourage the entry of decentralized innovation in tactical decision making while developing a more streamlined way of distributing the lessons learned.
Scripted Warfare in History
Prior to the United States entering World War II, the Pacific Fleet submarine force practiced targeting Japanese warships. This made sense, as the primary focus was building military readiness against the forces of Imperial Japan. However, the submarine force was not prepared for a change in doctrine and warfighting character when it was ordered to raid Japanese merchant shipping. The local training conducted off Hawaii left a deficit in understanding how to sink the easiest of vessels on the high seas. Stephen Peter Rosen notes that even though the “technological capabilities necessary [for this mission emerged later], concepts of operations that might have exploited the technologies did not emerge because they ran counter” to typical training policies.4
Submarine skippers were hesitant to execute tactics that made detection likely. They were terrified to raise their periscopes, as in their minds this was suicidal.5 As Rosen states, this “extreme caution built into prewar concepts of operation was artificially reinforced by unintended factors in the training process.”6 This example is similar to a modern day white-card model, where artificial and inaccurate information coupled with controlled training objectives hurt submarine crews’ proficiency at tactically employing their platforms.
Exercising the Panoply of Emerging Sensors
With the emergence of more advanced sensors, the limitations of scripted scenarios on test requirements become even more apparent. Today, the Navy is using the most technologically advanced sensors available, but it does not explore their full limitations, or even capabilities, until well into the deployment phase. Test scenarios tend to overlook some challenges encountered in geographic constraints, along with denied operations in the electromagnetic spectrum. Intelligence preparation of the environment in the likely battlespace must be applied to test and training areas to the maximum extent possible.
As a historical example, the Navy’s first surface-search radar was installed on board the destroyer USS Leary (DD-158) in 1937. In 1939, a more advanced XAF radar prototype was installed on board the battleship USS New York (BB-34) for operational testing.7 However, the emphasis in testing these sensors was to evaluate sensor performance in open waters, with the majority of the assessment being done in the Caribbean.8 It was not suitably tested within island chains with geographical constraints, which is where the majority of World War II battles occurred. As Thomas Mahnken notes, “Radar operators often had limited warning of the approach of enemy ships because of the mountainous islands and rain squalls that frequented [areas such as Guadalcanal].”9 Improved shipboard torpedo tactics based on radar targeting could have been introduced had this shortfall been discovered prior to U.S. entry into World War II.
Reshaping the Focus on Fleet Exercises
Though Large Scale Exercise (LSE) 2020 and Fleet Battle Problems (FBPs) are steps in the right direction, they do not solve the problems in the earlier stages of training. In his Fragmentary Order, the CNO outlines LSE underneath the pillar of mastering fleet-level warfare. He states that distributed maritime operations, expeditionary advanced base operations, and littoral operations in a contested environment are some of the main operational concepts commanders will leverage.10 Therefore, C2X should be the stage to practice mission capabilities, while the LSE could be the place to validate that a strike group is ready for a more advanced, high-end warfighting problem.
C2X should be the stage to embrace “brilliant mistakes.” As Paul J. H. Shoemaker explains, brilliant mistakes “accelerate learning and lead to breakthrough innovation.”11 A C2X objective should be to create opportunities that identify shortfalls and help the Navy develop methods to capitalize through inventive thought. As Andrew Hill and Charles Allen put it, the “structure of war games and simulations should make the identification and validation of new problem sets the overriding objective,” rather than strictly trying to validate fleet readiness.12
When focusing on exercises, Navy leaders must take a thorough look at how emerging sensors fare in a denied environment. Navy strike and amphibious ready groups must not fall into the habit of routinely completing C2X events while avoiding capitalizing on opportunities for innovative tactical development with the most advanced systems. Leveraging the power of the integrated fleet is not solely the responsibility of deployable assets. The Navy must include the test community in future exercise development.
If the Navy improves the way it trains in C2X, it will have greater confidence in its ability to fight and win in wartime. It needs to bring the joint structure into C2X events and show the component commanders how strike groups interact with joint assets. Joint force integration—not just individual readiness—must be the priority objective. By training smarter and introducing stressful challenges for warfighters now, the Navy will make them more lethal in the high-end fight.
1. For the purposes of this paper, any use of the word “scripted” when referencing exercises refers to the method of developing constraints within a scenario that limit the number of outcomes to one of a few potential desired end states.
2. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 108.
3. ADM Michael M. Gilday, USN, Fragmentary Order 01/2019: A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, 6.
4. Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991), 130.
5. Rosen, Winning the Next War, 135.
6. Rosen, 135.
7. Thomas Mahnken, “Asymmetric Warfare at Sea: The Naval Battles off Guadalcanal,” Naval War College Review (Winter 2011): 99.
8. Mahnken, “Asymmetric Warfare at Sea,” 99.
9. Mahnken, 115.
10. Gilday, Fragmentary Order 01/2019, 3.
11. Andrew Hill and Charles D. Allen, “Military Innovation through ‘Brilliant Mistakes,’” Army Magazine 64, no. 7 (2014): 30.
12. Hill and Allen, “Military Innovation through ‘Brilliant Mistakes,’” 30.