Article first appeared in Proceedings Magazine and has been approved to be posted by United States Naval Institute. [http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017-01/commentary-sea-control-first]
Our Navy must control the sea to project power anywhere around the globe. Yet despite the primacy of sea control to all other naval operations and to our nation’s security, we struggle at times to define “this wonderful and mysterious power,” not only to the public but also to ourselves. It is important to get the terms right, as it is only then that we can shape the path to our return to sea control.
Talking about Sea Control
Naval thinkers often write of “command of the sea,” which I assert is the general condition of superiority of one naval force over all contenders. Command of the sea can be regional or global, depending on the era under consideration and the nation exercising it, and it exists in peacetime as well as during conflict. While it is a useful term for historical analyses, it is less useful in modern parlance.
“Sea control,” on the other hand, denotes a condition that is both temporally and geographically constrained. When a navy has established sea control, it can exercise the full range of operations of which it is capable within and from that area. In exercising sea control, a navy (or a portion thereof) dominates in all domains essential to its operations—undersea, surface, air, and electronic.
The challenge when using “sea control” with a modern audience is the degree to which the listener believes it is a term germane only to naval conflict—that the standard condition of the seas is to be uncontrolled and that control must be established, either by asserting dominance over a previously uncontrolled area or by displacing another naval force from a position of control through combat.
In contrast, I offer that sea control is a condition that exists when a naval force is capable of mounting the full range of combat operations within acceptable levels of risk given the threat and the desired combat objectives. Sea control can be either actual—in which case combat operations have occurred and maritime territory has been seized; or assumed—in which case a preponderant naval force reasonably can expect to be able to exercise the full range of combat operations should they become necessary.
The Decline of U.S. Sea Control
Sea control was a point of contention between the U.S. Navy and the Soviets during the Cold War. Each side contended with the other to be able to establish sea control where and when it was needed. When the Soviet Union fell, there were no remaining impediments to the U.S. Navy and its quest for sea control. No nation could mount a serious threat to U.S. ability to dominate the seas and the skies above them.
From this position of maritime dominance, the U.S. Navy evolved into a power-projection force without equal. Aircraft carriers could cozy up to the shorelines of nations without sophisticated air defense networks and generate massive numbers of strike sorties with impunity. Air and missile defense of the carrier went from an intricate and layered model during the Cold War to a simpler, more concentrated notion that relied heavily on a sophisticated Aegis destroyer or cruiser “riding shotgun” with the carrier to defend it. Over-the-horizon antisurface warfare (ASUW) migrated from the surface force to the air wing as the Flight IIA Arleigh Burke destroyers hit the fleet without ASUW missiles and sonar technicians became more proficient in manning .50-caliber machine guns and serving on boarding teams than in identifying a submarine turbine-generator line on a passive acoustic display. In other words, the major mission areas that comprise the surface force’s participation in sea control—integrated air and missile defense and antisurface and antisubmarine warfare—were lower priorities than maritime security and precision strike.
When the Cold War ended, more risk could be assumed, concentration of force could be accommodated, the fleet could get smaller, and operational redundancy (multiple methods of servicing targets) could be eliminated. But times have changed. The global security environment demands that the surface Navy rededicate itself to sea control, as a new group of potential adversaries is working to deny us command of the seas.
The Imperative for Sea Control
The nation’s theory of conventional naval deterrence since the end of the Cold War has been one of compellence, aimed largely at middling powers prone to disturbing regional peace. Under this theory, there has been comfort that there would be sufficient time to meet regional aggression from deployed forces, and saving that, that the Navy could summon a great deal of force to reverse whatever gains were made. Deterrence was less concerned with denial and punishment and more attuned to the threat of what would follow. This approach, however, is unlikely to be effective against peer and near-peer competitors, as well as regional threats enjoying favorable geography. Some nations are capable of launching operations in their near-abroad in which considerable combat power can be brought to bear in support of fairly narrow and limited objectives. These kinds of short, sharp operations become increasingly
more dangerous as the balance of power among
forces in some regions alters. These circumstances could
pose significant challenges to our ability to protect U.S.
interests, but we are moving forward to address them.
Impact of Distributed Lethality
The force we send forward to control the seas must
be powerful, hard to find, hard to kill, and lethal. These
are the bedrock tenets of distributed lethality, a concept
introduced in “Distributed Lethality” in the January 2015
Proceedings. Distributed lethality looks at each unit of the
surface force as an offensive machine, and then drives the
force to increase that offensive capability through modifications
to existing weapons and sensors. By being in
place, lethal, and resilient, more heavily armed surface
ships can stand and fight, denying aggressors their immediate
and limited objectives and raising the cost of such
aggression in the first place.
We have made great progress in implementing distributed
lethality in the past two years, to include deployment
of the first Navy Integrated Fire Control Counter-Air
Strike Group that is pressing our antiair warfare (AAW)
prowess into the outer-air battle again by networking sensors
and weapons in a lethal integrated fire control loop.
This capability will give us the option of shooting down
bombers before they release their weapons, turning what
has become a largely defensive mission (AAW) once again
into an offensive one.
We are extending the reach of our ship-killing weapons
with the funding of an antisurface variant of the Tomahawk
missile and the successful test of the SM6 antiair
missile in a surface engagement. The longer ranges of
these weapons are important because our ability to provide
high-quality targeting data at greater ranges has improved
dramatically. And because high-quality tracks sometimes
can be held for only a few minutes, it is essential that we
are able to get a weapon moving downrange when actionable
targeting is attained.
In antisubmarine warfare (ASW), our ships equipped
with the AN/SQQ-89(A) V15 signal processing system
are continuing to generate contact on real-world targets
at ranges that would have made our Cold War sub hunters’
eyes water. In addition, the proliferation of multifunction
towed arrays creates the conditions for networked
and cooperative ASW, in which active emitters can be
dislocated from the receiving array, providing a means
of distributing targeting data and allowing our ships to
Although our efforts to increase the offensive lethality
of our ships get the most attention, defensive resiliency—
the ability to stand toe-to-toe with an adversary
in a contested environment—is an important part of distributed
lethality. Two systems in particular are moving us
in this direction. The first is Sea-RAM, which combines
the proven Phalanx system with a lethal close-in antiair
missile. This system was fielded speedily on our Mediterranean destroyers to counter upgraded threats in the
region. Second, we shortly will begin fielding the ESSM
Block II, an antiair missile with an active seeker that can
launch from a variety of systems, including a quad-pack
vertical launch system (VLS) variant. The point of these
measures is to force an adversary to reckon with both our
ships’ offensive might and the added difficulty (measured
in weapons necessary to achieve a hit) of achieving a mission
kill. Both are necessary to institute a more effective
brand of conventional deterrence.
Closing the Sea Control Gap
The “gap” in our sea control capabilities is between
those we have today and those we need for the future.
The good news is we know where these gaps lie and have
a plan (along with the U.S. defense industry) to address
them. Some areas where we are working hardest include:
Cruiser Modernization and Long-Term Air Defense
Commander Capabilities. Ensuring the surface force provides
unmatched air and missile defense command-andcontrol
capabilities remains a crucial emphasis. We are
upgrading cruisers and extending their service lives, even
as we consider how to replace this foundational capability.
Offensive Surface Warfare (SUW). Our surface ships
must be able to actively target and engage other surface
ships over the horizon (OTH). We are applying this approach
with the LCS OTH missile program, even as we
look to upgrade selected amphibious warfare ships.
F-35/Surface Force Integration. The F-35Bs and Cs
will provide the fleet with target-quality tracks on air and
surface targets. Off-porting those targets from the aircraft
in tactically relevant ways to enable other platforms—including
surface ships—to engage them is a key enabler of
a more distributed and lethal force.
Organic Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
(ISR). The surface force requires organic, medium-altitude/
long endurance unmanned vehicles. In addition, unmanned
surface vessels networked into the ISR picture and under
the command and control of surface units can significantly
extend force ISR, providing both active and passive electronic
warfare and acoustic data. The ASW Continuous
Trail Unmanned Vessel program offers real promise on
Battle Management. We must fully integrate our combat
systems at the platform, surface action group, strike
group, and fleet levels. Modern warfare against peer and
near-peer competitors will require us to conserve weapons
and ensure they are employed wisely against the attacks of
nations with deep magazines. A networked, scalable battle
management function that determines the best combinations
of hard and soft kill with the highest probability of
efficient success is required. This function must be able to
support a single ship in harm’s way and then scale up to
support coordinated operations of surface action groups,
strike groups, and even to the point of guiding the actions
of an entire fleet.
Next Generation ASW. Submarine-launched antiship
missiles are becoming the likely weapon of choice from
adversary undersea forces, as the ability to get in close
and target with torpedoes will be hotly contested. Given
the great strides in theater ASW the surface force requires
a weapon that enables us to act on solid but fleeting targeting
data to get a weapon headed downrange quickly,
with a payload that immediately puts the submarine on the
defensive before it can obtain targeting data on the fleet.
Low-Cost/High-Capacity Munitions. It is imperative that
we move toward low(er) cost/high(er) capacity munitions
to meet two challenges—(1) high-end opponents able to
devote more of their industrial base to producing weapon
stockpiles, and (2) the need to better align a weapon’s cost
with the target against which it is employed. Laser weapons
offer the promise of meeting both these challenges for
selected targets, and rail-gun technology offers promise in
matching relatively low-cost projectiles against far more
expensive missiles. In addition, a low-cost “quick-strike”
land-attack weapon suitable for employment from VLS
cells would give us the ability to destroy lightly defended
land targets with lower cost weapons. When the USS Nitze
(DDG-94) targeted Houthi radar sites in Yemen in October
2016, she did so with TLAM missiles from relatively
short range. A more modestly priced weapon suitable for
modestly defended targets would have been useful.
Investment in Manpower and Training. We must continue
to invest in maintaining our best and brightest people
and fund individual and unit training with realistic training
systems. These systems must be capable of simulating
complex operating environments. Our people—the center
of our universe—deserve the best, and we need to deliver
the resources that will prepare them for success if they are
called to go in harm’s way.
Distributed lethality increases the U.S. Navy’s sea control
capability and expands U.S. conventional deterrence.
Funding the tactics, talent, training, and tools to field a
more lethal and distributed force will enable us to establish
sea control where it is needed for other naval operations,
even as we contest opponents’ ability to deny us
the use of the sea.